Posted on Fri, Feb. 03, 2006
More than two weeks after they left Cuba in a boat bound for Florida, eight Cubans were found alive on a sliver of an island in the Bahamas. Six others perished.
By ALFONSO CHARDY, LUISA YANEZ AND ROBERT L. STEINBACK
from an uninhabited Bahamian island
The phone call Miriam Valiente Rodriguez received Thursday afternoon from her son Yohan was a miracle—and not just because it came from a tiny, uninhabited Bahamian island 60 miles south of Miami.
Yohan Concepcion Valiente, 29, was among eight Cubans found Thursday by a Bahamian fishing vessel, dehydrated but alive after having departed Cuba by boat more than two weeks ago. It is believed their boat was the same one spotted—and then lost—a week ago by the U.S. Coast Guard.
‘He called me at about 4 p.m. and said `Mami, Mami, it’s me, Yohan,’ ‘’ Miriam Valiente said. ‘When he said `Yohan,’ I thanked God. Then he said, ‘Relax, Mami, I’m OK.’ He said he was a little dehydrated and weak but OK.’‘
Before the five-minute call ended, her son told her the tragic news: Six of his friends had perished. Valiente said her son and 13 other neighbors and friends from the same hometown, San Antonio de los Baños, left Jan. 14 on a boat bound for South Florida.
One of the eight survivors, Raidel Martinez Chávez, 33, was airlifted to a hospital in Marathon for treatment for a severely infected finger. The finger was amputated.
Relatives in Miami identified two of the dead as Emixi Asqui and Yule Parra.
Others believed to be alive: Rogelio Amaro, Walfrido Rivero, Juan Carlos Torres and Yosvani Suarez.
The Coast Guard could not immediately confirm if the eight were survivors of a rickety boat carrying about 15 migrants spotted Jan. 26 about 46 miles southeast of Marathon. Search crews lost track of the vessel when darkness set in, and could not relocate it during the ensuing 48-hour search. Coast Guard spokesman Luis Diaz confirmed that six bodies had been recovered.
The survivors were found on Elbow Cay, part of the Cay Sal Bank—and not very far from the spot where the boatload of migrants had been spotted the previous week.
The Bahamian fishing vessel that came across the survivors Thursday contacted the Coast Guard about 3:45 p.m. A Coast Guard helicopter crew, including a surgeon, made contact with the stranded party, said Petty Officer Gretchen Eddy, a Coast Guard spokeswoman. Except for Chávez, the survivors appeared to be in relatively good condition, although dehydrated, Eddy said.
But the helicopter crew didn’t include a Spanish speaker, and so was unable to determine details about how the group got there until an interpreter arrived with a cutter crew late Thursday.
The future of the eight survivors was unclear Thursday. A Coast Guard representative said normal policy would call for the seven healthy migrants to be turned over to the Bahamian government, although that had not taken place by late evening. The Bahamian government typically returns interdicted Cubans to their homeland. Chávez may qualify to stay under the federal government’s wet foot/dry foot policy, which generally allows Cubans who arrive on U.S. soil to remain in the country.
Valiente, who didn’t know how her son managed to contact her by telephone from the remote island where he was found, said she is desperate to find out where he was being held. She feared his repatriation to Cuba.
`WOULD BE SO CRUEL’
‘‘It would be so cruel after all they’ve been through to be send them back,’’ she said.
``For humanitarian reasons, they should bring them to Miami.’‘
Valiente left Yohan and two daughters in Cuba when she departed the island nation a year ago. The daughters called two weeks ago to say Yohan was on his way by sea.
‘‘I became very worried when my daughters called and said Yohan was supposed to have arrived and he was not here,’’ she said. ``It was 12 days of torment.’‘
That was before the Jan. 26 sighting of the wayward boat by a Coast Guard helicopter. The crew counted 15 people aboard, but Valiente said the correct number was 14.
When the Coast Guard was unable to relocate the vessel, Valiente said she couldn’t sleep or eat. It was the last she heard about the vessel until a Hialeah relative of another migrant called her Thursday to tell her the group had been found and that Yohan was among the survivors. Yohan himself called shortly afterward.
MAD AT COAST GUARD
Yusinit Quiñones, of Miami, who is friends with four of the migrants, is livid about the U.S. Coast Guard’s actions.
‘‘How could they spot those people and then just leave them out there in that bad weather? This requires a very, very good explanation,’’ said Quiñones, who rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital on Thursday, believing that was where the survivors were being taken for treatment.
Like Valiente, Quiñones, too, fears they will be sent back to Cuba.
She planned to contact local politicians todayfor help in bringing the migrants to the United States.