BY J.J. HYSELL | keysnews.com
Edgar Raul Batista Gamboa prides himself on being an honest man. The former Cuban Coast Guardsman, who defected with three other patrolmen to Key West in a dramatic dash for freedom in early February, worked a professional job and said he did his best to keep his family comfortable.
But he said unbearable conditions made him a thief and eventually flee his homeland.
“I didn’t want to steal gas,” he said. “Nobody that works hard, that’s honest, wants to steal gas. But people had to do it. It was either steal gas or go without food.”
Such conditions in Cuba have brought thousands to Florida Keys shores over the years, but recent airplane hijackings followed by the execution of three who hijacked a ferry, and Fidel Castro’s crackdown on Cubans who have spoken against his rule may be an ominous sign of what’s ahead, said Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation.
“The repression may be getting to the point where you have a crisis brewing,” Garcia said.
A migration surge is a possible byproduct of the volatility stirring 90 miles from Key West. James Cason, chief of the United States Interests Section in Havana, recently expressed concerns about an impending exodus.
“The continued disintegration of Cuban society generates instability throughout the region and creates the threat of mass migration to the United States,” Cason said. “This undermines our security and the long-term potential for the Cuban nation.”
Two recent hijackings involving Cuban planes, for which a total of seven men are being tried on air piracy charges, were desperate acts committed by Cubans who admitted they risked their lives to seek political asylum in America.
Eight men who allegedly hijacked a Cuban ferry in international waters, demanding enough fuel to make it to America, suffered a different fate after the boat was escorted by the Cuban Coast Guard back to Cuba. Three of the men were reportedly executed by a firing squad; four were slapped with life sentences and a fifth was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
The executions ignited an already heated emotional whirlwind among Cuban citizens and the Cuban exile community as well as public officials. Florida Congressman Mark Foley (R-West Palm Beach) didn’t hold back when expressing his views on the executions after delivering a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives Friday.
“If anyone should be put in front of a firing squad, it’s Fidel Castro,” Foley said. “These freedom seekers were fleeing an oppressive regime, and for that, a brutal dictator stole their lives.”
The sudden executions were administered about 72 hours after the men were tried for the hijacking, during which they were found guilty of terrorism. The punishment shocked the local Cuban American community.
“Castro is a killer,” said Jose Cabaleiro, publisher of El Faro, a local Spanish-language newspaper. “I am sorry this is happening in my country. We need to do something.”
According to Key West Police, five Cuban defectors ditched a rubber boat they guided to Key West last Sunday and walked along the beach. They decided to, in the words of Officer Luis Sanchez, “come out in the open,” when they saw the Key West International Airport tower.
The cozy resort-town airport is mostly a welcoming ramp for tourists seeking days of solace in paradise; but could it be earning a reputation among freedom-seekers as the ideal point of entry?
Adermis Wilson Gonzalez, 33, who allegedly hijacked a Cuabana Antanov AN-24 plane that departed from the Isle of Youth, reportedly nixed the suggestion of landing at Homestead Air Force Base during an overnight standoff at Jose Marti Airport in Havana.
The aircraft was slated for arrival at the Naval Air Facility at Boca Chica until the very final moments. A decision was made just before final approach to land at the Key West International Airport. One source, a government employee familiar with the details of the incident, said the Boca Chica plan dissipated because Gonzalez had specifically demanded to land at the Key West International Airport. Monroe County Sheriff Richard Roth and Airport Manager Peter Horton both said they had heard similar information but could not officially confirm those details.
Both planes that were allegedly hijacked originated from the Isle of Youth, a strip off the southwest coast of Cuba. All suspects associated with the two incidents had ties to the quaint community, where word spreads fast of anything noteworthy—including a way out.
So far, however, no connection between Gonzalez and the six men accused of hijacking a DC-3 on March 19 has been proven.
View of America
Batista Gamboa said the Cuban leader perpetuates the idea of America as a loathsome land.
“He tells everyone how bad America is, how horrible a place it is,” he said. “But it’s lies, all lies. This is paradise.”
Cuban citizens hear tales of prosperity and freedom from relatives living in America. Communication, however, is difficult; phone lines are often monitored and conversations are abruptly cut off for unknown reasons. Relatives of Cuban refugees who recently arrived in Key West said mail is also monitored and residents must be prepared to reveal to the government the names of anyone who visits their home.
The younger generation of Cuban men in their late teens, 20s and early 30s—deemed “The New Man” by Castro—is feeling the strain. Some remain loyal to the regime; others, however, attend the mandatory rallies by day but plot their escape at night, said Havana-born Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Miami), who fled the communist country with her family when she was seven years old.
“Castro’s line to the Cuban people is the United States’ embargo is keeping you hungry,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a recent interview. “The Cuban people don’t really see America as the enemy. If they did, and they bought into that propaganda, they wouldn’t be risking their lives, literally, to come to the United States. They know it is Castro who is keeping them in poverty, but there is nothing they can do about it. They have no ability to congregate in crowds and have neighborhood police squads. We tend to think that doesn’t exist, but it does.”
Some are calling for outside condemnation in the form of stiffer United Nations denouncements and worldwide embargoes.
“I think we need to keep the embargo,” said local Cuban-American community leader Alfredo Aguero. “We need to close all doors. The European community needs to stop all ties with the Cuban government.”
The hijacking cases
The Cuban government criticized the United States for what it viewed as leniency in U.S. Magistrate Hugh Morgan’s ruling of a $100,000 bond for each of the six men accused in the March 19 hijacking, and said the second hijacking was inspired by the first incident. Officials throughout Washington and South Florida spoke of a “no tolerance” approach to hijackings, which, if classified as air piracy, carry a minimum of 20 years in prison.
Gonzalez, the suspect in the second hijacking, was ordered held without bond. Morgan cited questions as to the involvement of Gonzalez’ common-law wife, whose hairpins were used in the formation of the fake grenades during the alleged hijacking.
In a decision handed down in Miami Thursday, U.S. District Court Senior Judge James Lawrence King rejected the U.S. Attorney’s appeal of Morgan’s bond ruling for the six men.
Nervous family members of the six accused, including young children who sat quietly in a jam-packed back row, made a statement without speaking. They watched intently as the defense and prosecution argued their sides, anticipating an outcome that weighed heavily on their future as well as that of the six men.
One of those relatives was Armando Gonzalez, uncle of accused hijacker Alvenis Arias Izquierdo, 24, and the owner of a bakery. If plans come to fruition, Izquierdo and Gonzalez could be working side by side—an implausible scenario less than a month ago, when Izquierdo was scrambling to make ends meet a world away on the Isle of Youth.
“Once he gets his papers straightened out, he has a job at the bakery,” said attorney Israel J. Encinosa, representing Izquierdo.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.