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HavanaJournal.com: Cuba Politics

34 from Cuban family returned to island

Posted November 12, 2005 by mattlawrence in Cuba Politics.
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The Cuban migrants held on a Coast Guard cutter after their boat capsized a week ago, drowning two women, were returned to Cuba Friday.

BY ALFONSO CHARDY

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Thirty-seven men, women and children—ranging in ages from 2 to 74—cowered silently under a bridge near the port of Mariel on Cuba’s northwestern coast last Saturday morning, prepared to leave what Florida relatives described as 400 years of family history behind them.

By Friday, 34 of the Cubans had been sent back to the island, dropped off at the port of Bahía de Cabañas along with 45 other Cubans interdicted in other operations.

The 34 are all said to be members of an extended family. Their forcible return to the communist country angered their Florida relatives, who had been desperately trying to get them to U.S. soil after the weekend voyage resulted in the deaths of Isabel Menendez Machado, 74, and Luisa Cardentey, 60.

‘‘We are in shock,’’ said Jose Lopez, a Tampa resident, who told The Herald that he helped organize the trip to get relatives out of Artemisa, a town west of Havana.

His 17-year-old stepdaughter, Days Yero, was on the capsized boat but was allowed to come ashore because she has a green card.

The family’s struggles against the Castro regime can be traced to its patriarch, Gilberto Gil, who Lopez said died in 2003 at age 90. Gil was Lopez’s grandfather, and the uncle or great-great-grandfather to many of the children and young adults who boarded the speedboat a week ago.

Gil inherited a large cattle ranch near Havana, part of the wealth the family had accumulated since the ancestors’ arrival on the island in the 17th century, Lopez said.

When Fidel Castro announced Cuba’s agrarian reform law in 1959, Cuban authorities confiscated all the family’s land, he said.

‘‘At that point,’’ Lopez said, ‘‘my grandfather rose up against the Castro regime.’’ Lopez said Gil assisted the CIA and exile fighters in covert anti-Castro sabotage in the 1960s. Eventually, Lopez said, the Castro government discovered Gil’s anti-government activities and sentenced him to 20 years in prison. That started a spiral of persecution that has lasted to the present day, Lopez added.

BREAK IN FAMILY

An intriguing footnote to Gil’s punishment, Lopez said, was that a close Castro associate—Maj. Antonio Sánchez Díaz, known as Comandante Pinares—was a family member whom Gil raised as if he were his own son.

Pinares was killed in Bolivia in 1967 before soldiers there captured Argentine-Cuban revolutionary Ernesto ‘‘Che’’ Guevara and summarily executed him.

Cuban exiles familiar with Artemisa said they recalled a prominent community member named Gilberto Gil who at one point got in trouble with revolutionary authorities and had a family link to Comandante Pinares.

Lopez says family legend has it that Pinares left a letter to Castro saying his dying wish was for Gil to be freed. As a result, Lopez said, Gil was released after serving 15 years of his 20-year sentence.

SETTLED IN TAMPA

Lopez and his parents were among the first family members to leave Cuba. In 1970, they flew to Spain and three years later moved to Tampa, where other family members had settled prior to the Castro revolution.

Over the next three decades, more family members trickled out of Cuba and moved to Tampa. But scores remained in Artemisa. After Cuba began allowing exiles to return for family visits in the 1980s, Lopez and other members of the clan started traveling to the island regularly.

On his last visit in June, Lopez said, planning for the secret voyage began.

Lopez’s stepdaughter, Yero, may have been a key liaison between the family branches—and an added incentive for Lopez to help organize the operation. The holder of a green card since 1999, Yero had stayed behind in Cuba 11 months ago after visiting her grandmother, Isabel Menendez Machado, and deciding she needed to care for her.

Yero had realized that returning to Florida wouldn’t be that easy. Cuban officials were delaying the return of her passport and green card, which she had been forced to turn in. Tampa family members then started to pool their resources to carry out the mission, Lopez said.

Artemisa relatives organized into a group and provided the boat pilot, Jorge Ernesto Leyva, a cousin who had left the island in August and landed in Cancun.

Leyva made his way to Tampa, where Lopez and others were assembling the operation. Tampa family members, meanwhile, leased the 27-foot speedboat. Lopez declined to identify the owner and refused to say how much it cost.

Last Saturday, not long after the group gathered near a rocky outcropping near the coast, a 27-foot speedboat arrived. The group splashed into the water and scrambled aboard. Leyva quickly turned the boat northward and sped toward the Florida Keys.

He didn’t make it. About 75 miles south of Key West, rough seas thwarted the voyage.

This latest migrant tragedy, the third high-profile risky voyage in two months, has again spread anxiety in the Cuban-American community. Here leaders renewed calls for President Bush to scrap the decade-old policy known as wet foot, dry foot that encourages fleeing Cubans to reach U.S. shores at all costs—lest they be caught at sea and sent home.

ANGER GROWS

The two women’s deaths also sparked new recrimination against the Coast Guard—once seen as a savior back when cutter crews rescued Cubans and automatically brought them ashore.

While Cuban migrant deaths happen periodically, the latest were all the more distressing to the exile community because they so closely followed the Oct. 13 drowning of 6-year-old Julián Villasuso near the same spot.

A further source of controversy is whether the latest voyage was a smuggling operation or a desperate effort to reunify a persecuted family. The issue likely will be settled in federal court. The migrants’ Coral Gables attorney, Eduardo Soto, plans to sue the Coast Guard, alleging negligence.

Now the family in Florida faces the burial of two loved ones and the fear that those sent back to Cuba may be jailed and not allowed back into their homes.

‘‘We have talked to people over there and we understand that already the homes my relatives left behind have been taken over by the Cuban regime and stripped of everything,’’ Lopez said, ``including toilets and other bathroom fixtures.’‘

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