Lighthouse Cuban rafters in legal limbo after six months at Guantánamo
BY MARIO J. PENTÓN
They crossed the Florida Straits six months ago and, in a desperate act,
sought refuge on the American Shoal Lighthouse off the Florida Keys to
avoid being repatriated to Cuba.
Later, a bottle with a handwritten message inside that was thrown
overboard and plucked out of the sea by a fisherman, drew international
attention to the rafters' plight aboard the Coast Guard cutter that was
ferrying them. After demonstrating "credible fears of persecution" if
they were repatriated, the Cuban migrants were transported to the U.S.
Navy base at Guantánamo Bay.
Today, some of those "lighthouse rafters" still on the base say they
feel pressured by authorities to return to their homeland and are
overwhelmed by the lack of work available to them.
"We want to work, we are refugees, not prisoners," said one of the 17
rafters awaiting their fate.
Cubans intercepted at sea are generally returned to the island while
those who make it to U.S. soil are allowed to stay under the "wet-foot,
dry-foot" policy. Although a federal judge ruled that the "wet-foot,
dry-foot" policy did not extend to the American Shoal Lighthouse 6.5
nautical miles off Sugarloaf Key, the Cuban rafters were later given
safe haven at the base while their cases remain under evaluation.
"We are very grateful for all the help they have given us, but we do not
understand why we are not allowed to talk to lawyers or work," the Cuban
Initially, a total of 20 migrants were transported to the base, but
three of them returned to Cuban soil — two of them returned voluntarily
and a third was repatriated after authorities discovered that he once
worked for the government's Ministry of the Interior.
"We are forbidden to speak to the press about our situation," said the
rafter, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by the
authorities at the base.
Of the group of 17 men who remain at Guantánamo Bay, 10 are unemployed,
said a second Cuban rafter who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
"We can call our family once a week, but nobody tells us how much longer
we have to be here," he said. "Some of us work in manual jobs and get
paid $4.97 an hour."
According to the migrant, a high-ranking official at the base, Commander
Dennis Mojica, has told them twice that anyone who does not accept their
current situation "has the door open to return to Cuba," a phrase which
they consider a pressure tactic to get them to return to the island.
"People have come to interview us but no one tells us what our legal
situation is, and when we ask to work, they tell us that there is no
work. It is very difficult to sit idly all day. The only thing we ask is
that they let us earn a living," he said.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State told el Nuevo Herald
that, "All protected migrants residing at the U.S. Naval Station
Guantanamo Bay (NSGB) are there voluntarily; they are free to return to
their home countries at any time, but the United States does not
pressure them to do so."
The spokesperson also said that migrants are regularly visited by
officials who monitor their situation and the most recent visit happened
"The migrants are allowed to apply for jobs on the base and can
participate in recreational and social activities," the spokesperson
said. "They also have access to educational opportunities and means of
communication with friends and family in their home countries and
elsewhere. It is important to note that there are a limited number of
employment opportunities at NSGB."
Apart from the lack of work, the Cuban migrants said U.S. personnel on
the base have provided excellent care and they receive generous
financial aid and educational opportunities.
"They take us out on excursions and we have no complaints about the
sanitary conditions. We have health coverage and receive $107 in
financial aid on Sundays to buy our food. In addition, we are given 30
minutes on the phone to talk with our family," the migrant said.
Ramon Saul Sánchez, leader of the Democracy Movement, which that filed
legal appeals for the rafters, said: "We lost our first lawsuit for the
lighthouse to be considered a U.S. territory and the rafters as dry
feet. At the moment, we are in the process of appeals."
According to the activist, the group of lawyers working on the pro bono
case, is still hopeful that the lighthouse will be declared a U.S.
territory, thereby giving the migrants the ability to enter the United
States under the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy.
Otherwise, the State Department must find a third country to take in the
migrants, a process that can sometimes be long and complex.
Source: Lighthouse Cuban rafters in legal limbo after six months at
GITMO | Miami Herald -