It was 5:30 on the morning of March 3, 2008, when Ambergris Caye residents Elbert and Kate Greer sighted the odd-looking craft coming toward their section of the beach. They were having their early morning coffee while getting ready for their morning jog in their north Ambergris Caye location, some 20 minutes from San Pedro Town, near Portofino Resort. Little did they know they were about to become embroiled in what promises to be an international incident. Then the passengers on the craft did a strange thing. They jumped into the water, with their clothes on, and began swimming to shore.
As they reached the beach, they began kissing the ground.
The Greers, astonished, met the group, and later posted at the Ambergris Caye dot com website that the group, comprised of men and women, were Cubans, who thought that they had reached the United States of America.
The Cubans became very disappointed when they were given the news that they were not in the USA, but in Belize.
The visitors were given clean, warm clothes, some money, and water. They were then pointed in the direction of the Cuban Medical Doctor in San Pedro Town, as one man appeared to have a serious wound and another, reportedly a woman, had fainted since coming ashore. They claim to have spent twenty days at sea in their efforts to get to Florida.
While initial reports had the figure of “refugees” at 13, it has since been confirmed that there were actually 17 Cubans aboard the vessel (12 men and 5 women). Belize has an agreement with Cuba whereby Cuban nationals illegally coming to our shores must be returned to Cuba. This is quite unlike the policy that is in place in the USA. Once the Cubans arrive on USA shores, they are granted preferential status.
It was on March 21, 2005 under the Musa Administration, when Belize police reported that seven Cubans, presumably fleeing their country, had landed on Belizean soil and were taken in custody.
The men were arrested on Turneffe Island. The “boat people” had told Belizean authorities that they left Cuba 19 days ago and were trying to get to Honduras. It seems they ran out of food and docked on Turneffe Island that Saturday night.
Authorities were alerted and the men were arrested as soon as the police could arrange the logistics. The men were transported to the Queen Street Police Station and the public was never fully briefed as to their fate. They had told police their ultimate destination was the United States, a country that welcomes Cuban boat people by granting them asylum, while refusing other “boat people” like Haitians.
Previously, on November 20, 2002, also under the PUP administration, seven Cuban men who had landed on southern Ambergris Caye near San Pedro Town were immediately arrested, charged and remanded to Hattieville Prison. While those seven men were seeking asylum, all were denied that solace, and were returned to their country of origin. The media was not alerted when and how the repatriation took place.
The new Government of Belize will be tested very early in their administration to see on which side they’ll lean in the tug-of-war that’s sure to follow. Politically, they are committed to returning the suffering seafarers to Cuba, but “humanitarianly speaking,” they cannot turn hungry, sick and weak men and women out to sea, in a long and probably fruitless journey to Florida, especially now that their escapade has reached the attention of the local media.
The international media will not miss this one, for sure, and the Cubans, without a shadow of a doubt, will find their way to the USA blocked.