A South Florida audience watched 10 Cuban men fight with federal authorities live on TV before they were stopped short of reaching U.S. soil.
BY CHARLES RABIN AND ELAINE DE VALLE
A South Florida television audience got a rare peek at interdiction on the open seas Friday when 10 desperate Cuban men defiantly struggled with U.S. authorities for more than an hour, trying to reach the U.S. mainland—and the chance of freedom.
In the end, the Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security succeeded in stopping the men about a mile east of Miami-Dade’s Haulover Beach—but not before a Homeland Security go-fast boat smacked into the metallic homemade craft, rocking it and sending four of the men spilling into the sea. Soon after, the others on board raised their hands in surrender.
The Cubans’ scramble, captured by South Florida TV news cameras, dramatically underscored a controversial U.S. policy that, for the past 10 years, has generally allowed Cubans who touch land here to stay in the United States. Those who don’t make it to shore usually get returned to Cuba.
Hundreds of such interdictions occur off Florida each year. Most are revealed bu U.S. authorities—but few ever make it onto live TV.
No one was injured in Friday’s incident, and the Cuban men had no signs of dehydration from their journey, said U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Luis Diaz.
The men dumped overboard eventually made it back onto the 15-foot boat. One man swam hard against the current as the other three clung to the side of their vessel.
The group was being taken to a Coast Guard cutter offshore, where they were expected to be interviewed. Later, authorities in Washington, D.C., will decide if any should receive political asylum.
Coast Guard officials, citing policy, would not say where the Cubans were being taken.
Friday’s spectacle, first broadcast as the Cubans’ vessel was still five miles offshore, unfolded on the Hialeah TV screen of Francisco de la Ross Carralero, who watched as two of his cousins, Carlos, 35, and Antonio Carralero, 30, struggled with authorities.
‘[Carlos] was standing in the back of the boat. I yelled to my wife, `That’s my cousin!’ ‘’ Francisco said. ``I knew they were coming. They spent the last two months making the boat out of scrap metal and tanks and Styrofoam inside.’‘
According to de la Ross, relatives of the men from the city of Puerto Padre in the province of Las Tunas on Cuba’s northern coast called Sept. 16 to tell him the men had left that night. If true, it would have put the group, at least at some point, somewhere in the path of winds from Hurricane Rita as it crossed the Florida Straits.
The Coast Guard’s Diaz said he also believes the men’s voyage began in Puerto Padre. He didn’t know when it began.
What authorities did say, and what the public saw, was that the Coast Guard used a rope to try and stall the engine of the yellowish metal craft by snagging its propellers. They also tossed life jackets at the men—which the men threw back. They used one of their boats to gently nudge the craft, then briefly sprayed water from a cannon at the Cubans to try to stop them.
‘‘It was just basically a tactic to let them know this was available’’ as a deterrent, Diaz said.
When those tactics failed, the Homeland Security go-fast craft slammed the starboard side of the 15-foot metallic vessel, which sported an orange sail.
Zach Mann, spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, called the collision ‘‘inadvertent.’’ He said a U.S. Customs boat bumped the Cuban vessel, sending it toward the Homeland Security boat.
‘‘We’re not in the business of trying to harm people and throw them in the water,’’ Mann insisted.
A Herald review of the tape, however, seemed to show the Cuban vessel was deliberately struck. And many who watched the event unfold live felt the same way.
Jose Basulto, founder of Brothers to the Rescue, a group formed to fly search missions for Cuban rafters in the Florida Straits, said the way law enforcement officers dealt with the Cuban boaters was an eerie echo of Fidel Castro’s own practices.
‘‘It was a shameful spectacle,’’ Basulto said.
Moments after the Cuban boat was slammed, federal authorities gained control of the situation. Coast Guard officials put plastic handcuffs on several of the men, placed life jackets on them and escorted them onto an orange Coast Guard boat.
The Cubans’ vessel will be towed out to sea where it will be destroyed, a Coast Guard spokeswoman said.
Friday’s incident may have been one all-too-common in the Florida Straits, where since Oct. 1, 2004, 2,617 Cubans have been intercepted before reaching U.S. soil. That’s more than double the number for the previous 12 months.
Television chopper crews from most of the local stations arrived at the scene about five miles east of Haulover Beach well before the Coast Guard and Homeland Security.
That gave television viewers a bird’s eye view of the delicate tug of war. And it highlighted the lengths to which Cubans will go reach U.S. soil.
The U.S. government deals with Cubans trying to get here with a policy dubbed ‘‘wet foot-dry foot.’’ It was created during Bill Clinton’s presidency and it allows Cubans who make it to U.S. soil to stay. Those who don’t make it, though they are granted an asylum hearing, generally are returned to the island nation.
Only Thursday, a Key Biscayne taxi driver found eight Cubans walking along Rickenbacker Causeway. Lyndon Ontivero, 60, said he was taking exile activist Sylvia Iriondo to the airport when they came upon the group at about 5:30 a.m.
Ontivero said he called police, and when he returned later, immigration officers were interviewing the Cubans.
For some, Friday’s incident brought back bitter memories of the Surfside Six—a group of Cubans who dove off a tiny skiff off Surfside Beach in 1999, then played cat-and-mouse with authorities as a live national television audience looked on.
Two of them eventually made it to shore. They all ended up staying in the United States.
Francisco de la Ross, who got here by raft in 1992, remembers the 1999 standoff well. He said seeing the Coast Guard use a water cannon to spray the boaters didn’t surprise him at all.
‘‘It’s different, of course, when it’s your own blood and even more so when you know they have no weapons, no knife or machete, and that they are not threatening anybody in any way,’’ he said. ``They just want to get here.’‘