Fleeing Cubans land among the cruise ships in Grand Cayman
Published on Wednesday, March 7, 2007 Email To Friend Print Version

By John Evans, Cayman Net News

GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands: Eleven Cubans, nine men and two women, fled their country and braved rough seas in a makeshift boat to sail into George Town harbour in Grand Cayman last Friday.

On their way to Honduras, the Cubans restart their vessel and wave goodbye to Grand Cayman. Photo by John Evans
They had made the journey from Cuba through waters off Cayman Brac, where they had been sighted on Thursday afternoon. Early Friday morning, they were spotted heading west by residents in South Sound, Grand Cayman.

At 9:30 am they were greeted at George Town’s North Terminal - used by millions of cruise shippers - not as welcomed guests but as an embarrassment to the assembled officials.

In the past, these landings have taken place well away from the main tourist areas but, by design or luck, this latest arrival took place under the scrutiny of hundreds of visiting tourists.

With their hands tied by the terms of the Cayman Island’s notorious Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Cuba, Immigration Officers were forced to give the refugees two simple choices – land and be repatriated or continue on your way with no help.

The MOU dictates that no assistance of any sort be given to Cuban migrants who choose to continue their journey. In the past this has been applied to the letter, with boats being denied basic supplies like water, food and fuel. However, under the watchful eyes of local media and cruise shippers, the officials gave some assistance to the boat people.

After initial discussion, a crate of bottled water was provided. Seven of the refugees were then allowed ashore while the other four completed repairs to a broken propeller shaft.

All the time, George Town was full of tourists. Many of them stopped to ask what all the fuss was about and to take photographs.

The reaction of those who found out what was happening reflected shock and disbelief. A couple from Canada said they could not believe that a British colony would treat refugees in this way. They questioned the legality of the action and the credibility of the UK government.

Visitors from the USA added that they now viewed the Cayman Islands in a completely different light. For them, the picture they had on arrival of an idyllic vacation resort had been shattered.

On the dockside and along the road, sympathy for the Cubans was clearly evident. People whose cruise ship had sailed through rough weather the night before, marvelled at the fact the Cubans had reached George Town safely and expressed concern that the Cayman Islands Government was planning to force the refugees to continue their journey.

Women openly wept when they heard what was happening, people protested to the officials present and tried to provide assistance.

On the boat, the Cubans set about making repairs, baling out water and getting ready for the next leg of the journey – over 400 miles to Honduras.

On shore, local taxi drivers tried to provide food. Immigrations officers agreed to allow it through, but there were delays. People tried to pass money and clothing to those on the boat but these were not let through. One concerned person obtained the telephone number of the parents of one of the refugees, then called them to say he was safe.

As the repairs neared completion, the officials appeared to be deciding to hurry matters along. Tourists collected money to buy Kentucky Fried Chicken, which was passed to the boat. More bottles of water arrived, and even hats and a pair of sunglasses were brought to the travellers.

With the repairs complete, the boat’s engine was started and it made a short test run round Hog Sty Bay before picking up the last passengers.

Almost exactly at 1:00 pm, escorted by the port patrol boat and waved on by a crowd of well wishers, nine of the Cubans set out to try and reach freedom while their two companions, who had decided to stay, were led away by Immigration officers.

Amongst those observing events were many Cubans - passengers on a visiting cruise ship - who themselves had fled the Castro regime in improvised boats. One man told Cayman Net News that he had reached Florida in 1963 after making the journey in a small boat. He wished the departing refugees a safe voyage. “With God’s will they are going to reach Honduras, but I fear you are sending them to their deaths,” he said sadly.