By Stephen Nohlgren, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Saturday, June 18, 2011
TAMPA — Four Cuban men who fled the island in a military patrol boat
could lose their lives if they are sent home, says a Tampa lawyer who
wants to represent them.
The U.S. Coast Guard intercepted the boat in international waters
several weeks ago and took the men to Guantanamo Bay naval base, where
their fate is uncertain.
Ralph Fernandez, who often deals with Cuban immigration issues, said
Friday he fears that Cuban authorities will claim the men are terrorists
and demand their return, or that U.S. authorities will ship them out to
a third country, "which will not be safe because of the long reach of
Cuban intelligence'' services.
Fernandez was contacted late last month by Jose Diaz, a Tampa
cabinetmaker who immigrated to the United States in 1994 and is the
uncle of one of the men and cousin of another.
Diaz, 52, said his nephew, Alexi Hernandez, 21, had been conscripted
into the Cuban military. He got into trouble when he repeatedly took off
from his base and returned home. At one point, when military officials
retrieved him, he got into a shoving match with a superior and was
facing serious punishment, Diaz said.
But Hernandez had a friend in the military whose job was to guard a
patrol boat. The two of them, plus two other men, stole the boat in late
May and struck out for the United States.
No violence was involved, Diaz said. "The only problem was they wanted
to seek liberty in a free country.''
Diaz said his sister in Cuba, who is Hernandez's mother, found out about
the boat theft when Cuban authorities came to her house and asked about
her son's whereabouts. Diaz said he and his sister talk frequently by
"She is crying all the time,'' Diaz said. "If they send him back to
Cuba, they will kill him as an example to others. He stole a boat.''
U.S. policy toward Cuban immigrants has evolved since Fidel Castro came
to power five decades ago.
Originally, just about anyone who ventured across the Florida Straits
could gain asylum and economic opportunity. Refugees packed into leaky
boats would cheer when the U.S. Coast Guard showed up at sea, because
that meant the rest of their journey would be safe.
Current policy, sometimes dubbed "wet foot, dry foot,'' is more
stringent. Cubans who make it to U.S. soil on their own can stay. But if
U.S. authorities intercept them at sea, they will be repatriated to Cuba.
People can also gain asylum — or at least get passage to a third county
— if they convince U.S. authorities they will be persecuted if returned
That's the argument Fernandez wants to make if he can get to Guantanamo
to serve as the men's lawyer.
Diaz, who had heard about the boat theft from his sister, called
Fernandez because the men didn't show up in Florida.
Fernandez's office asked U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, Democratic
Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio to help find out what
After several weeks of phone calls and letters to government agencies,
Castor confirmed that the four were being held in Guantanamo.
Spokeswoman Ellen Gedalius confirmed Friday that Castor's office is
trying to help, but did not provide further detail.
Rubio's office also contacted immigration officials, spokesman Alex
Burgos said, and was assured "that the Cuban migrants are safe and being
afforded all rights under law.''
Spokesmen for the Pentagon and Coast Guard said they were unaware of the
incident and could not elaborate.
Deciding how to treat the four Cubans could prove complex, Fernandez said.
"The Cuban government is going to be enraged by this,'' he said. "They
will be building a case to suggest that these guys may have used force
in essentially commandeering a vessel — that this is something far more
than somebody's flight to freedom.''
If violence did occur, he said, international sensitivity over terrorism
will come into play "and I will have real problems with that.''
But so far, U.S. officials have not suggested that the boat was riddled
with bullet holes or stained with blood, Fernandez said, and he thinks
he would have heard by now if that were the case.
Even a nonviolent boat theft could raise issues.
In 2003, 12 Cubans stole a private boat from a marina, taking three
watchmen along with them, then fought with U.S. Coast Guardsmen who
intercepted them at sea. After the Cuban government accused the 12 of
theft and kidnapping, U.S. authorities sent them back.
One the other hand, Fernandez successfully defended three Cubans who
stole a crop duster in 1996 and flew it to the United States.
Thefts during a clear quest for political freedom garner lots of support
in Florida's Cuban community and sympathy from politicians, Fernandez said.
"If there was violence, there isn't a politician who is going to touch
it. If there isn't, a lot of people are going to join the effort to
bring them here.''
Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Stephen
Nohlgren can be reached at email@example.com