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Posted November 11, 2005 by mattlawrence in Cuba Human Rights

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The scene played out Thursday as it has for a decade in South Florida: Protesters calling on the president to set free Cuban migrants held by U.S. officials on the high seas, lawyers feverishly filing motions in Miami federal court, carnations tossed into turquoise waters amid prayers for divine intervention.


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All the while the bodies of Isabel Menendez Machado, 74, and Luisa Cardentey, 60, rest in a legal limbo here. Their relatives refuse to bury them until the 33 Cubans who traveled with the women can come ashore to attend the funeral.

The migrants are facing repatriation after their boat capsized Saturday south of Key West drowning Menendez and Cardentey. Relatives of the two women protested in front of a Coast Guard station in Miami Beach Thursday and asked a federal judge to order Homeland Security to let them come ashore.

The civil action and the protest, led by a Cuban exile who pioneered traffic-blocking demonstrations against Cuban migrant repatriations, came on the fifth day of a standoff between the U.S. government and family members over whether the 33 migrants will be sent home.

Under the current wet-foot, dry-foot policy, Cuban migrants intercepted at sea are generally repatriated while those who reach U.S. shores are allowed to stay. The policy began in 1995 when the United States and Cuba struck an immigration deal that ended the 1994 rafter exodus that brought more than 37,000 Cubans to the United States.

Democracy Movement leader Ramon Sal Snchez, who organized traffic-blocking civil disobedience actions as soon as the deal was announced, led Thursday’s 15-minute protest in front of the Coast Guard station.


About 30 family members and friends of the 33 Cuban migrants on the cutter paraded on a bridge sidewalk in front of the Coast Guard facility. They carried white carnations, pictures of some of the migrants on the cutter and of the two women who drowned, and handwritten signs urging President Bush to order the Coast Guard not to repatriate their relatives, including more than a dozen children.

‘‘Mr. President, let our children on the cutter be free,’’ read a sign carried by a man at the head of the protest—Jose Lopez, a Tampa resident whose 17-year-old daughter, Days Yero, was aboard the boat.

Yero, brought ashore because she has a green card, was among the protesters along with Jorge Ernesto Leyva, the pilot of the capsized boat who was initially detained as a migrant smuggling suspect.

He was released Wednesday without being charged and without explanation, according to one of his lawyers in the Coral Gables law firm of Eduardo Soto.

‘‘We need President Bush’s help,’’ Yero said.

Snchez, who acted as a spokesman for the protesters, said the demonstration should be seen as a reminder to Bush to change the wet foot-dry foot policy, which he called ``unfair.’‘

At the end of the demonstration, the protesters prayed in a circle and then threw the white carnations into the sea.


As the protest unfolded, Soto’s lawyers were in Miami federal court filing their motion seeking a court order to prevent Homeland Security from repatriating the migrants still on the cutter. The six-page motion says the migrants are ‘‘entitled’’ to consult their lawyers on their possible asylum claims and need to come ashore and be paroled so they can serve as witnesses in the case Soto’s office wants to develop against the Coast Guard’s handling of the capsized boat.

‘‘The only manner in which a full investigation of the unfortunate incident may be achieved is for the Department of Homeland Security to immediately parole all of the witnesses present on board the demised vessel,’’ the motion states.

Matthew Archambeault, a lawyer in Soto’s office, said Judge Marcia Cooke has the case.


The boat capsized Saturday evening about 75 miles south of Key West when the Coast Guard cutter Metompkin arrived at the scene. Yero said that as she and other migrants were being taken to the cutter, the boat flipped in rough seas.

Yero initially said she thought the Coast Guard was chasing the migrant boat. But in an interview Thursday, Yero said she was mistaken and that Leyva, the boat pilot, told her later that he needed help because of the rough seas and summoned the Coast Guard by radio.

Soto’s emergency motion, however, quotes Yero as saying that the migrant boat capsized ``as a result of the wake from the Coast Guard rescue boat.’‘

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