- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2003

The Cuban refugees who Havana says hijacked a boat to come to the United States were in limbo yesterday, caught between U.S. immigration accords, which dictate that refugees picked up at sea be sent home, and Cuba’s execution in April of three hijackers caught in similar circumstances.

“If the Cuban government maintains that this was a hijacking, they would be tried as hijackers and executed or given very long prison sentences,” said Jaime Suchlicki, director of Cuban studies at the University of Miami. “If we could get some guarantee that they wouldn’t be executed or give life sentences, we should send them back … but I am ambivalent about this policy. We didn’t send back anyone who jumped over the Berlin Wall.”

On Tuesday, 15 persons reportedly stole a Cuban government boat, the 36-foot Gaviota 16, and made a mad dash toward the United States. Cuba immediately denounced it as a “hijacking.”

The next day, the Gaviota 16 was stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard in international waters off the Bahamas, and the passengers — 14 men and one woman — were taken aboard, where they remained yesterday. Their status is to be determined after interviews with U.S. immigration officers.

State Department spokesman Amanda Batt said yesterday the “incident is still being investigated to determine our course of action regarding those on board.” She said the boat would be returned to Cuba.

So far, the United States is taking the position that the boat was not hijacked.

“Based on information we have and observations of the people on board, this may be a stolen Cuban vessel that has been commandeered in an illegal migrant voyage,” said Jolie Shifflet, Coast Guard spokesman in Washington.

Cuban-American Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, all Florida Republicans, sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday asking him to protect the Cuban refugees, saying they faced the possibility of execution.

On Monday, four men hijacked a boat off Pinar del Rio in an attempt to escape Cuba. Three committed suicide after the boat was stopped by Cuban patrol boats, according to Cuban government statements.

Anti-Castro groups in the United States dismissed Havana’s account.

“In April, hijackers were arrested, given a summary trial and were executed, and the entire world was outraged. What this ‘suicide’ tells me is that the Cuban government has decided to skip the summary trial and go straight to the execution,” Dennis Hays of the Cuban American National Foundation said yesterday.

Since the time Fidel Castro took over Cuba, almost any Cuban who made it to the United States has been granted asylum. That changed in 1994 when thousands of Cubans, desperate to leave the island, climbed onto rickety rafts made of foam, plywood, inner tubes and rope and tried to paddle to the United States. Some 30,000 were picked up at sea and taken to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In May 1995, after secret meetings between U.S. and Cuban government officials, a “wet foot-dry foot” policy was announced, granting sanctuary to Cubans who made it to U.S. soil.

Those who do not make it to shore are repatriated to Cuba.

U.S. policy does allow for refugees picked up at sea to come to the United States if officers determine they have a well-founded fear of persecution by the Cuban government.

Havana says the policy encourages Cubans to leave the island illegally.

On April 11, the Cuban government executed three black men who had hijacked a ferry and tried to escape Cuba. Despite being followed by Cuban military boats, the slow-going ferry made it into international waters, where it was shadowed by a U.S. Coast Guard.

Under “wet foot-dry foot,” the Coast Guard stood by as a Cuban military boat towed the ferry back to Havana.

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