The Miami Herald
Jul. 22, 2003

U.S. returns to Cuba dozen who took boat

Washington: No change in policy toward hijackers, refugees


  WASHINGTON - The U.S. government Monday returned to Cuba 12 would-be refugees who stole a boat last week in a failed bid to reach Florida, denying any change in policy toward Cuban hijackers but acknowledging that Washington was sending a message to others intent on fleeing the island illegally.

  ''Safe and orderly migration, that's the message,'' a Bush administration official told The Herald, adding that any use of violence by Cubans in an attempt to reach the United States was ``most unwise.''

  The 11 men and one woman who tried to sail to Florida were dropped off by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter at the port of Cabanas, on Cuba's northwestern coast, shortly after 10 a.m.

  The decision to return them came after Washington determined the case could not be effectively prosecuted in the United States and following a Havana promise that they would not be sentenced to more than 10 years in prison, the U.S. official added.

  The official, who spoke to The Herald on condition of anonymity, said it would have been difficult to prosecute as a hijacking because none of the 15 people aboard were forced to steer the 36-foot Gaviota 16, a Cuban government marine mapping vessel.

  Twelve of them were involved in stealing the boat. The other three were dock security guards who were overpowered by the would-be refugees and forced to join them in their sail toward Florida, intercepted by the Coast Guard last week.

  In a similar case, five men who overpowered a mechanic and took him aboard a stolen boat to Key West last year -- but were not intercepted at sea -- were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commandeer a boat through force. They pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and were sentenced to time served -- 159 days -- and fined $25 each.

  White House officials were initially reluctant to return the latest boat thieves because three men who tried to hijack a Cuban boat in April were executed by firing squad in Cuba after a nine-day legal process.

  The U.S. decision to repatriate the latest group drew wrath from the exile community and Florida's three Cuban-American Republicans in Congress, who referred to the 12 as ''freedom-seeking'' refugees.


  ''This act of infamy in coordination with the Cuban tyranny is a condemnable monstrosity,'' Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart said in a joint statement with his brother Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

  ''Castro's Cuba is a place where there are no laws, no independent courts or judicial system, and the entire island is at the whim of a tyrannical despot who does what he wishes with every individual on the island,'' the statement added. ``Cuba is a prison. Due process is nonexistent.''

  The Cuban government, however, praised the repatriation as an important step in deterring illegal migration, which it has long alleged is fueled by the U.S. policy of
  allowing any Cuban who sets foot on American soil to remain in the United States.

  A Cuban government statement read on state-run radio and television called the return ``a valuable contribution by American authorities in the fight against the hijacking of planes and boats for illegal migration through the use of violence and force.''

  Cuba's official statement was followed by another statement broadcast Monday and attributed to James Cason, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Washington's diplomatic mission in Cuba.

  ''The United States will deploy its homeland security forces to interdict any hijacked conveyance bound for the United States,'' Cason's statement said, adding that all hijackers ``will be prosecuted with the full force of the U.S. legal system.''


  The repatriation came after lengthy discussions with the Cuban government that began two days after the Gaviota 16 left the port of Boca de Nuevitas on Cuba's
  northeastern coast on July 15. It was intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard in international waters the following day after a scuffle with some of the Cubans.

  U.S. lawyers determined that a charge of hijacking could not ''hold together,'' the U.S. official said, and that bringing the Cubans to U.S. soil to charge them with assaulting federal officials would establish a bad precedent.

  Complicating the issue was the fact that the boat belongs to the Cuban government, and in order to prosecute, U.S. authorities would have to ask Cuba to cede
  jurisdiction, the official said. ''They would not have ceded their jurisdiction,'' the official said.

  Still, U.S. authorities feared the dozen would suffer the same fate as the three hijackers executed on April 11. But the Cuban government came up with a possible
  alternative on Thursday, the U.S. official said.

  A diplomat from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington approached U.S. authorities and implied that the offenders would be prosecuted on armed robbery and kidnapping charges, with punishment not to exceed 10 years.

  After back and forth negotiations, the Cuban government agreed to put the statement in writing. On Saturday night, U.S. authorities received the final version of the

  ''We expect the Cubans to live up to the assurances,'' said the U.S. official. ``They're on record with their own people.''

  Herald staff writers Jennifer Babson and Elaine de Valle contributed to this report.