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October 1999, Volume 6, Number 10

Caribbean, Central America

Cuba. Some 1,500 Cubans arrived in Florida between January and June 1999, the largest influx since 1994, when 33,000 arrived. Instead of coming on homemade rafts, as in 1994, most Cubans are arriving on smugglers' boats, with relatives in Florida paying $2,000 to $8,000 to smugglers to bring one person to the US. Florida's governor estimates that 50 to 70 Cubans arrive illegally every day.

Under the "wet-foot, dry-foot" distinctions adopted by the US in 1994, Cubans intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba; those who reach US land are paroled into the US, which allows them to become immigrants one year after their arrival.

Cuba says that this US policy encourages smuggling, and the Cuban government has made smuggling a crime punishable by life imprisonment. Two Cuban-born US citizens went on trial in September 1999 for attempting to smuggle 11 Cubans to Florida; their boat capsized near Havana and one person drowned—one received a life sentence, the other 15 years. In July 1999, Cuban President Fidel Castro urged the United States to abolish the Cuban Adjustment Act, a 1966 law that allows Cubans who reach US soil to become immigrants after one year's residence.

The Cuban government announced that any Cuban who left illegally after September 9, 1994, will not be allowed to return to the island; the purpose of the bar to re-entry, according to the Cuban government, is to discourage illegal emigration. Under Cuba's previous policy, Cubans who left illegally were allowed to return for visits after at least five years abroad.

In the late 1970s, Cuba began allowing return visits by Cubans abroad. About 110,000 Cubans living in the United States—legal immigrants and US citizens-- visit the island each year, either on Miami-Havana flights or by traveling through third countries such as Mexico and the Bahamas.

In late September, 47 Cuban emigrants escaped from a Bahamian jail by chipping the bathroom bars away. Fourteen were recaptured, but 27 are still being sought by Bahamian police. Nearly 400 detainees from various countries have been living in the island country's only prison since Hurricane Floyd rendered the Carmichael Road Detention Center uninhabitable.

Haiti. About 20,000 US troops landed in Haiti in September 1994 to restore elected president Aristide to power, and to make it unnecessary for Haitians to set out for the US in small boats. After five years and $2 billion in US assistance, US troops are leaving.

The Haitian people continue to have the lowest per capita income in the Western Hemisphere, an average of $250 a year and 60 percent of adults are illiterate. [Nicaragua is second poorest, with a $380 per capita income; 34 percent of Nicaraguans are illiterate.] About half the population live in Port-au-Prince; the economy depends mostly on foreign aid. Haitians living outside the country send about $600 million a year to relatives in Haiti.

An estimated 70 percent of Haiti's work force is unemployed and depending upon casual employment, such as shining shoes or hawking wares on the street, for survival. Without the informal economy, said one of the Haitian president's advisor's, "we would see a lot more desperation and a lot more boat people." The information economy is estimated to have grown about three percent in 1998, this was offset by a two percent growth in the population. Economists say that Haiti must grow by five or six percent annually in order to improve the economy.

In addition to Haitians in Haiti, there are about a million Haitian-born persons in Canada and the United States, and another million in the Caribbean, mostly in the Dominican Republic. As poor rural residents continue to cut down Haitian forests to get fuel, the viability of Haiti's agriculture and ecosystem is strained, causing rural-urban migration and emigration. The US ambassador to Haiti from 1981 to 1983 said that "Rural Haiti is a 20th Century Greek tragedy of Malthusian prophecy run wild, and little time remains to reverse the course toward destruction."

Jamaica. In the first nine months of FY99, the INS deported 47,100 criminal aliens, including 1,500 to Jamaica. The Jamaican government blames the returned criminals for a summer 1999 crime wave. The Ministry for National Security and Justice says that Jamaica, with 2.6 million residents, had 953 murders in 1998. More Jamaicans live abroad than on the island.

The Canadian High Commission issued a report that concluded "An alarming increase in violent crimes push Jamaicans to leave legally when possible, and illegally when necessary. Fraud [in providing documents for visas] continues to be pervasive ...and the involvement of prominent members of society in various visa scams." The Jamaican government responded, "There's no mass exodus of people leaving the country illegally.

Jamaica is in an economic slump, a result of a government decision to bail out failing banks and insurance companies by borrowing $1 billion, which drove interest rates to 40 percent and led to recession. Average per capita income is $8,000, and unemployment, officially 16 percent, is estimated by private economists to be 20 to 25 percent. Many educated Jamaicans are emigrating, which some fear may make it harder for Jamaica's economy to expand.

Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez said on September 22 that the Dominican economy could collapse without the remittances currently sent by Dominicans living abroad. Fernandez said that the main goal of trips to the US and Taiwan is to increase foreign investment in the country.

The costs of passports varies from country to country: the US charges $65 for a passport good for ten years, and the Dominican Republic charges $40 for a six-year passport. But Dominicans obtaining or renewing passports in the US must pay far more, $40 plus $160 in fees at the Dominican Consulate in New York City—after protests, the Dominican charge is expected to be reduced to $150.

Central America. Nicaraguans have been moving to Costa Rica for years, and Costa Rica, a country of 3.5 million, has publicized its generosity in being open to foreigners needing help. After Hurricane Mitch destroyed much of the Nicaraguan economy in October 1998, an estimated 250,000 moved to Costa Rica, doubling their number, and making one in seven Costa Rican residents a Nicaraguan.

There has been a backlash, with "Nicaraguans out" graffiti painted on some walls in San Jose, and news reports identifying criminals as Nicaraguans. In June 1999, the Costa Rican Supreme Court upheld the government's decision to deport 300 Nicaraguan families.

Costa Rica offered 150,000 Nicaraguans legal immigrant status in an amnesty that ended July 31, 1999. Costa Rica wants the US to provide it with some of the $1 billion pledged to help to rebuild Nicaragua and Honduras.

Serge F. Kovaleski, "Haiti's Dual Economy Lets Most Scrape by Officially Jobless," Washington Post, October 4, 1999. Don Bohning, Crime problem in Jamaica worsened by deportees from US," Miami Herald, September 27, 1999. "Fernandez emphasizes importance of remittances," Listin Diaro, September 23, 1999. "Cuban immigrants Flee Bahamian Jail," AP, September 25, 1999. Juan O. Tamayo, "Cuba toughens policy on illegal departures from island," Miami Herald, September 1, 1999. Jody A. Benjamin, "Jamaica blames U.S. deportations for surging crime wave," Sun-Sentinel, August 29, 1999.