Published: February 25 2004 20:13 | Last Updated: February 25 2004 20:13
Storms that brew in the Caribbean often turn north with devastating consequences. And though the hurricane season is still months away, the outbreak of political turmoil in Haiti is being treated in Florida with the same wariness as a summer meteorological report.

Concern is highest among members of the sizeable Haitian community of South Florida. “Fear of bloodshed is the biggest concern we’re getting every day,” says Markly Joseph, host of a daily two-hour talk show on Radio Party, a Haitian station in Miami. “People from both sides fear that bloodshed is almost inevitable.”

Florida politicians know all too well that if widespread violence breaks out in Haiti, it could trigger a mass migration similar to the three-year crisis in the early 1990s that saw more than 70,000 Haitian refugees flee, many of them desperately trying to reach Florida.

After promising to offer sanctuary to the refugees, Bill Clinton, US president, ordered thousands of Haitians to be interned at the US base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Now Florida’s two US senators, Bill Nelson and Bob Graham, are warning that a similar refugee crisis might be days or weeks away if the Bush administration sticks to what Mr Nelson calls “a hands-off policy”.

After a closed-door Senate foreign affairs committee briefing from assistant secretary of state Roger Noriega -the highest ranking US official to visit Haiti since the start of the crisis – Mr Nelson said: “They [the Bush administration] don’t have a plan. The policy is to do nothing. I think their policy is they want to get rid of Aristide.”

He added: “I wish them (the administration) well, because the alternative is awful.”

Kendrick Meek, a Democratic congressman representing a largely black Miami district, has been a leading advocate of easing the administration’s policy of repatriating Haitian refugees, which continues even as turmoil spreads across Haiti.

“There’s a lot of tough talk about what won’t happen,” Mr Meek said in an interview, “but if we don’t stop the violence in Haiti now, every day it escalates to another level.”

Alex Penelas, mayor of Miami-Dade County, worries that if the US continues its Haitian repatriation policy in the face of violence in Haiti there could be unrest in Miami’s Haitian community.

That could damage his bid for the Democratic nomination to succeed Mr Graham.

On Wednesday President George W. Bush reiterated his hard line, saying he had instructed the coast guard to turn back any fleeing Haitians who seek to land in the US.

“We will have a robust presence with an effective strategy, and so we strongly encourage the Haitian people to stay home as we work to effect a peaceful solution to this problem,” Mr Bush said.

But should large numbers of Haitian refugees be intercepted at sea by US coast guard vessels, it is unclear just where they could be held if they were not repatriated.

The Guantanamo base is said to be equipped to handle 20,000 to 50,000 refugees, but a spokesman for the military’s Miami-based Southern Command said the Pentagon is “not inclined to use it for refugee activities,” preferring instead to restrict the base to “war on terrorism” detainees.

Jeb Bush, Florida’s governor and the president’s brother, refuses to be drawn into the Haiti debate. Alia Faraj, his press secretary, would not discuss contingency plans for a migration crisis.

For Florida Haitians, the collapse of democracy in their country is not only frightening but also embarrassing.

“All of us had hoped for something better, says Gepsie Morisset Metellus, Executive Director of Sant La, the Haitian Neighborhood Center. He adds: “There is anger at the fact that this is our bicentennial year [of independence], and it’s ironic that we are in the midst of a civil war.”

Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami, echoes that sentiment.”It’s beyond a mess,” she lamented, “it’s a catastrophe. This is a tragedy.”