MIAMI — It is 700 miles from Haiti to the Florida shore, and most of the boat people suffer the voyage crowded into sailboats that are no more than splintery hulls. Sometimes the vessels are found drifting in circles, trying to follow the sun.
Other refugees jam into leaky shrimpers, hiding themselves in crates in the dank hold or beneath a mound of bananas. Noise sputters from a single engine while the passengers murmur the voodoo prayers that might make them invisible to patrol boats.
Still others scrape together impossible sums for the people smugglers, paying as much as $2,500 for a plane ticket and a phony passport. Immigration officers in Miami scornfully call the doctored papers "50-yarders," the distance from which they can spot the switched photos.
Moved to Take Chances
No matter what the ordeal, the Haitian exodus--a bedeviled crossing to America from the hemisphere's poorest nation--has started anew. Three years ago, the U.S. Coast Guard's high-seas crackdown near Haiti appeared to choke it off. But desperation has a way of making people take chances.
"We have a saying, that the teeth of the shark are sweeter than the life we leave behind," said the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, a Haitian activist here.
Last year, 3,005 Haitians--packed into 62 boats--were stopped at sea by the Coast Guard. That is four times the number halted in 1983, and 20 times the total of 1982, according to Coast Guard records.
"Zero safety equipment, no life jackets, a big deal if they have a compass," said Cmdr. James P. Sutherland, who heads the Coast Guard's Haitian Migration Interdiction Operation. "They seem to navigate by luck."
836 Seized on Beaches
At the same time, the number of refugees caught sloshing ashore--often turning up amid the sunbathing residents of oceanfront condominiums--also is rising. In 1984, 836 Haitians were seized on the beaches, nearly double the total for 1982 and 1983 combined.
On Oct. 29, for example, seven Haitians in a battered motorboat arrived at Sailfish Point, a posh resort community in Stuart, 90 miles north of here. They wandered perplexedly amid the country-club setting, thinking they were in Miami and that America indeed was a place of milk and honey.
Security guards soon spotted the refugees. When police searched them, they found only Bibles, toothbrushes and $150.
"Half the time, our mission is search and rescue," said Harold Boyce, the Immigration and Naturalization Service's chief interdiction officer. "By our records, half the sailboats that leave Haiti never make it. No sign of them, ever again."
At Miami International Airport, 666 Haitians--more than any other nationality--were caught last year trying to enter the country with fake documents, according to INS records.
"Honestly, these people are just being ripped off in Haiti," said Luis Santiago, one of the immigration inspectors. "Their passports have glue smudges and hand-punched numbers. Really, they look so bad."
But those caught in this country have a significant edge over those confronted at sea. They get this choice: a free return to Haiti or indefinite detention here.
Most, in fact, choose the latter, preferring even that fragile foothold. They board the bus to the Krome Detention Center, a sun-bleached camp on the edge of the Everglades, full now that travel on the "Haitian Highway" has busied again.
Amid the rows of Army cots in the camp's brightly painted barracks, two kinds of stories prevail about Haiti's despair.
$300 Average Annual Income
One story is of economic hardship in a nation where the average annual income is only $300--and the income in the mountainous countryside still less.
The other is of the dreaded Tontons Macoutes, the murderous and wanton security forces of President-for-Life Jean Claude Duvalier.
For Inerve Montinville, a tall and gaunt 44-year-old farmer near the city of Leogane, it was the Macoutes who forever disturbed his life's simplicity.
Not so long ago, he worried only about his six children, a half-acre plot of land, his few pigs and goats.
Then, during a visit to his sister in Carrefour, he helped a neighbor woman carry her valise to the bus. Her name was Sylvana Francois, and, by Montinville's story--numbly recounted in Creole--this single amiable gesture began a peasant's fearful flight from his birthplace.
\o7 Three days later, somebody came to my house and told me Mr. Andre is looking for me. He is an important man who travels a lot. I went to him, and he said I should know about Sylvana, his wife.
She had taken some money, he said, and he can't find her. But I don't know anything; I had only helped her carry the valise. Mr. Andre said I was responsible, that I was holding a bomb lit on both ends and it would blow up. He is very important, Mr. Andre, and I was very frightened.
A few days later, some men came looking for me while I was at the farm. My children did not recognize them, and I decided maybe it is best that I sleep somewhere else.