BY ANDREA TORRES | Miami Herald
The scene played out as it has so many times before: Cubans on a flimsy inflatable raft begged Carnival Cruise Line officials not to interrupt their journey to ‘‘freedom’’ while passengers tossed them water bottles and shot video.
Adlin Sukhwani, of Kendall, was on the last leg of a seven-day cruise, about 45 miles from Key West, when she spotted the small raft on Saturday and her husband started videotaping the 10 men—an effort to get their faces splashed in the news media and help their families identify them.
Dozens of tourists leaned on the verandas aboard Carnival’s Valor to spot the men traveling on what appeared to be an inflatable raft of blue rubber, ropes and wood, she said. ‘‘Americans, Cubans, Colombians, we were all trying to help them, and throw them bottles of water,’’ Sukhwani said.
When one of the tourists asked what they needed, the men responded: ``Please tell them to keep on going. Don’t stop!’‘
Under the U.S. wet foot/dry foot policy, Cubans intercepted at sea are generally sent back to the communist island, while those who make it to American soil are usually allowed to stay.
‘‘It was a very emotional moment for all of us,’’ said Sukhwani, of Cuban and Indian descent. ``We felt powerless.’‘
Following U.S. Coast Guard procedure, the cruise ship intercepted the raft about 45 miles off Key West, said a Carnival spokesman.
Before the cruise ship crew took the men aboard, ‘‘one of the Cuban men said with despair he had risked his life and this was his fifth time being returned,’’ Sukhwani said.
The men said they were from El Cotorro, a town on the outskirts of Havana.
Sukhwani’s husband, Dhiraj Sukhwani, filmed the moments before the crew took the men aboard, hoping close-ups of the men’s faces will help family in South Florida identify the men, who appeared to be in their 20s and 30s.
Carnival later turned the men over to the U.S. Coast Guard. The tourists arrived in Miami on Sunday.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are questioning the men and processing their return to Cuba, a Coast Guard spokesman said.