Rafter who climbed lighthouse left Guantánamo Navy base, returned to Cuba
Alexei Leyva Céspedes, one of the 24 Cuban rafters who sought refuge on
the American Shoal lighthouse on May 20 and were taken to the U.S. Navy
base in Guantánamo Bay while their cases were reviewed, has returned to
his hometown of Puerto Padre.
BY MARIO J. PENTÓN
Alexei Leyva Céspedes hoped the rough seas that nearly drowned him and
23 other Cuban rafters would be the only obstacle he would confront on
his way to the American Dream.
He did not count on the U.S. Coast Guard's tenacity in blocking the
growing flow of undocumented Cuban migrants; the hard times he spent for
several days aboard a cutter; climbing a lighthouse off the Florida
Keys; and his inability to talk to the attorneys representing the
rafters in court.
Two months later, Leyva abandoned the U.S. Navy base in Guantánamo,
where the rafters were transferred while their search for asylum was
processed, and returned to his hometown of Puerto Padre in the eastern
province of Las Tunas.
"They told me I couldn't enter the United States, that I would have to
stay on the base at least two years until another country agreed to give
me asylum," he said from Cuba. "I have family, two children and a wife.
I couldn't live away from them so long.
Leyva and 23 other Cuban rafters took refuge May 20 on the American
Shoal lighthouse, seven miles off the Florida Keys. Amid a court battle
that is still going on, four were returned to the island and 20 were
sent to the Guantánamo base to await a grant of asylum from a third country.
Coast Guard officials said the 20 Cubans demonstrated a well founded
fear of persecution if they were returned to the island, although none
had been active in dissident groups.
Leyva said that his return home was not easy. After he was handed over
to Cuban immigration officials by Guantánamo base authorities, he spent
one night in jail with common criminals and was later transferred to
All the money he paid for the voyage to South Florida, and the hopes of
finding a job that would allow him to move his family to the United
States, went overboard. Back in Puerto Padre, one of Cuba's poorest
towns, he's trying to get a permit to grind and sell corn.
"The only thing I've done all my life is work. That's what I wanted to
do in the United States, to give my family a better life," he said. "I
hoped my work would be enough at least to buy food and clothes for my
children, not like here."
Leyva said he and another rafter came up with the idea of sending out a
message in a bottle when they were held aboard a Coast Guard cutter — a
message complaining of abuses that was found by a fisherman and made its
way to the news media.
WHEN THEY TRANSFERRED US TO THE CUTTER, THEY TOTALLY ISOLATED US FROM
WHAT WAS HAPPENING.
The Coast Guard confirmed the existence of the message and ordered an
investigation. Crewmen blocked an attempt to send out a second message
in a bottle.
Leyva, who said he was never questioned by the Coast Guard
investigators, insists the abuses took place.
"From the start they were aggressive. When we climbed on the lighthouse,
they did not want to give us water even though some of us were showing
signs of dehydration," he said.
He alleged that the Coast Guard also tried to sink the group's boat
before they could reach the lighthouse.
"When they transferred us to the cutter, they totally isolated us from
what was happening. We had no access to information, and they constantly
threatened us with truncheons," he said.
He acknowledged that it was difficult for the Coast Guard to handle such
a large group in such a small space, but added that the Cubans were
threatened verbally and with the use of tear gas.
AFTER 39 DAYS AT SEA, LIGHTHOUSE CUBANS HAVE WET FEET, JUDGE RULES
"Only through other rafters who arrived later on the cutter and were
returned to Cuba did we learn about the process in Miami courts to help
us," he said.
Coast Guard figures show there's been a significant increase in the
number of Cuban rafters intercepted at sea. From Oct. 1 2015, when the
2016 fiscal year began, until this April, 2,350 rafters were returned to
Cuba – the same number repatriated in all of fiscal 2015. Another 3,563
Cuban rafters were spotted or reached U.S. territory in the first seven
months of Fiscal 2016, compared to 4,476 for all of the previous fiscal
"Conditions on the cutter were horrible. We had two meals a day, but
they were small and bad. We spent days under the sun and nights under
the moon, and barely got water," said Leyva, adding that some days the
rafters could not bathe or brush their teeth. "We spent seven days
without taking a bath because we had no water. I never thought something
like that could happen in the United States."
Conditions changed radically after they were transferred to the
"They treated us well there, but they constantly told us that the wait
could take at least two years. They also told me that if I went to a
third country I would lose my Cuban citizenship and could never enter
the United States," Leyva said.
Ramón Saúl Sánchez, president of the Democracy Movement in Miami, said
he was aware of the cases of Leyva and another rafter who has also
decided to return to his home on the island, Félix Tornet Yero.
"If you keep someone in an isolated room and tell him that he's going to
be held there for several years, and on top of that the person has
family, it's understandable that person would decide to return to the
country he was trying to escape from, because family ties are very
powerful," said Sánchez.
Sánchez, a long-time activist on behalf of Cuban rafters, said attorneys
in the case will continue to argue that the rafters were "dry foot" on
the lighthouse, and therefore should be allowed to enter the United
States under the wet foot- dry foot policy.
"I feel like I am being watched in Cuba. I don't want to be here, but I
have to work, to help my family and look for another way to get to the
United States," he said. He made clear, however, that he will not make
another attempt to cross the ocean.
Source: Rafter who climbed lighthouse left Guantánamo Navy base,
returned to Cuba | In Cuba Today -