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Flight Of Cubans From Caymans An Open Secret On The Island

February 15, 1995

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Cayman Island authorities and many residents on Grand Cayman knew about the powerboat that carried off Cuban refugees one night last week and two more vessels that left with Cubans the next day.

At least 150 Cubans living in a tent city have taken to the sea in the past week, just before the United States was to resume an airlift that would have moved the Cubans in the Caymans to a U.S. Navy base in Cuba.

More than 65 Cubans landed in west Florida or were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard on Tuesday, and another 83 were intercepted west of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on Wednesday by the Coast Guard.

Beset by an influx of 1,200 Cuban rafters last year, the British dependency of 27,000 people has been eager for the Cubans to leave, and authorities even helped the Cubans repair their boats.

``The impact (of the Cuban influx) is the rough equivalent of 10 million people arriving in the United States,″ said Cayman government spokeswoman Patricia Ebanks.

``We can’t detain people who want to leave,″ Ebanks said by telephone from Grand Cayman. ``We don’t have resources to force them to stay. Do we have a moral right to force people to stay who want to go, who came voluntarily?″

An official from London was even blunter on a visit to the Caymans in early January. Tony Baldry, a minister for the Foreign Office with responsibility for dependent territories, told the Cubans they had three choices: voluntarily head back to communist Cuba, go to the U.S. tent camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or leave on their own.

Most Cubans heading to the United States cross the Florida Straits into Florida, but some on the lightly guarded south coast of Cuba head to the Caymans.

Grand Cayman, best known as a tourist resort and shelter for hundreds of billions of dollars in offshore banks, is 200 miles due south of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs.

Smuggling Cuban exiles out of the Caymans and into the United States is nothing new.

In 1993, a Miami-based Cuban exile group, the National Democratic Unity Party, airlifted more than 200 Cubans from the Caymans to the Dominican Republic. Nearly all were smuggled by sea into Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, where under then-U.S. law the Cubans were given immigration status for fleeing Fidel Castro’s dictatorship.

The law was changed last summer as tens of thousands of Cubans, most of them fleeing economic depression, set out by boat for Florida. Since then the United States has set up tent camps in Guantanamo and in Panama for Cuban refugees and has created much stricter guidelines for U.S. entry.

Nearly all the Cubans leaving the Caymans over the past week were young single men, among the lowest priority for U.S. immigration status in Guantanamo. Ebanks said it was possible that anxiety over the impending airlift from Cayman to Guantanamo may have prompted the departure.

The Cubans detained Tuesday in Florida told U.S. authorities they paid smugglers $1,000 each to go to Miami. An Immigration and Naturalization Service spokeswoman said the detained Cubans were being questioned Wednesday about the identity of the smugglers.