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Nearly 300 People Feared Drowned on Illicit Voyage to Miami

November 21, 1996

PETIT-GOAVE, Haiti (AP) _ At least 290 people who set out clandestinely in a leaky sailboat with hopes of a better life in Florida are missing and feared drowned.

``I can’t believe God is so hard-hearted that he would let my whole family perish,″ Natasha Chery, 35, said Wednesday in Petit-Goave, 40 miles west of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Chery has not heard from dozens of relatives, including her brother and sister, since they sailed from nearby Trou Chou-Chou on Nov. 3 aboard ``L’Ange Gabriel,″ the Angel Gabriel, a 63-foot motorized wooden sailboat.

With 290 passengers aboard, the boat stopped at Gonave Island in Port-au-Prince Bay, and may have taken on more passengers before leaving for Miami two days later.

``The boat was already leaking. They left without repairing it. It was windy and rainy,″ Maxo Dibi, 21, said he was told by friends on Gonave Island.

Dibi’s younger brother, a cousin and his stepmother were on the boat.

``Misery drove them to the sea. The country is hungry,″ Dibi said.

The first news of the missing passengers came from a radio report Wednesday claiming that Petit-Goave residents had attacked the home of the alleged organizer of the trip, Rene Louis, and nearly lynched him and his wife on Monday.

Police denied the report. They said about 100 distressed relatives and friends had surrounded Louis’ house on Saturday, wailing and demanding to know the fate of the boat people. Police dispersed them without incident.

Louis reportedly left for Miami and has not returned.

The U.S. Coast Guard said Wednesday that it had no information on the whereabouts of the boat, though Coast Guard officers closely monitor traffic from Haiti to prevent such desperate voyages, often on unseaworthy and overcrowded boats.

Such trips usually take up to a week and, on arrival, Haitians normally contact relatives in Florida.

From 1991 to 1994, tens of thousands of Haitian boat people fled political repression under the military regime that had ousted then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

In part to stem the exodus, the United States sent troops to Haiti, and they restored democracy in 1994. But Haiti’s economy has not recovered and down-and-out Haitians have resumed their efforts to reach Florida.

Last year, the U.S. Coast Guard picked up 1,980 Haitian boat people at sea.

Macapagal Labarre, a 31-year-old Petit-Goave resident, said he has been intercepted twice _ in 1992 and 1994 _ each time being interned at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

And even though his brother is one of the missing, Labarre said he would readily undertake the journey again.

``I didn’t have the fare″ of $170, he said. ``Otherwise, I would have gone too. In spite of everything, if I had the opportunity to go today, I would.″

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