September 1, 1980.  p. 26.


Cuban Hijackers—And Those Who Stay


            Armed sky marshals began flying incognito aboard commercial jets again last week, behavioral profiles of potential hijackers were distributed to airline ground personnel and beefed-up security checks came into play at many of the nation’s airports, especially in the South. The all-too-familiar state of siege that suddenly surrounded U.S. air travelers followed an unprecedented spree of skyjackings a fortnight ago—six planes diverted to Cuba in one week, three of them in a single day. All six successful plane heists, and several stymied attempts, were the work of recent Cuban refugees grown discontented with the United States and seeking a quick ride home.

            The overwhelming majority of the 120,000 refugees from last spring’s “Freedom Flotilla” would not dream of returning to Cuba, let alone stealing a plane to get there. But the renewed burst of air piracy did reflect a gnawing disillusionment in their ranks. Tantalized by tales of prosperity in United States from relatives here who have visited the island, many of the new immigrants expected a world of silk shirts, Sassons and Sonys. “They came here and woke up to reality,” says Miguel Gonzalez Pando, director of Florida International University’s Center for Latino Studies. Both work and housing have been hard to come by; a recent study of new refugees in Miami found that 73 per cent had no permanent jobs and only 9 per cent could pay for their own housing.

            The latest spate of hijackings began when a Spanish-speaking man, toting a box he said was a bomb, commandeered an Air Florida flight between Miami and Key West and diverted it to Havana. His “bomb,” it turned out, was simply a box of soap. Three days later, seven Cuban refugees threatening to ignite bottles of gasoline skyjacked another Air Florida flight en route from Key West to Miami. “It appears we may have the start of a new problem,” said a Federal Aviation Administration official in Washington. He was right. In the next three days, National, Eastern, Republic and Delta planes were diverted to Cuba by Hijackers brandishing gasoline bottles and, in one case, a “bomb” that was in fact a children’s toy. In each case, the hijackers were arrested and all other passengers returned safely to the United States.

            Stepped-up security thwarted two additional skyjack attempts last week, but the underlying problem of disillusioned refugees seems likely to remain. About 15,000 Cubans—the hardest to place—still languish in four camps around the country. All the publicity about criminals, homosexuals, mental patients—and now potential hijackers among the Cubans—has had its effect on resettlement efforts. Some sponsors, impatient with supporting refugees who can’t make it on their own, have abandoned them, and some immigrants have walked out on the jobs they finally did find. “The refugees sometimes expect huge-paying jobs,” says the Rev. Jim Jamail of Catholic Charities in Houston. “If it’s not exactly what they expected, they quit.” Catholic Charities and other relief agencies have poured out hundreds of thousands of dollars to aid the Cubans, but most Federal and some state assistance has been withheld because the newcomers have not received official refugees status.

            Disaffinity: The new refugees cannot always count on sympathy from Cubans who fled after Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959. The earlier refugees were largely middle class and professional; recent arrivals are often uneducated and unskilled. The disaffinity is sharp in Union City, N.J., a once dying industrial town that was revived and transformed by the first Cuban wave, which now makes up 60 per cent of the population. “I will never forget the feeling of disgust when I first greeted the new refugees,” says one Union City Cuban. “It was the way the smelled, how dirty they were, how loud and crudely the spoke, and how many blacks there were.”

            Ironically, the homosexuals among the new refugees have fared better because of support from the U.S. gay community. The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, a gay religious organization, took the lead in resettling homosexual Cubans. Along with the Dade County Coalition for Human Rights, the MCC has obtained sponsors for 1,500 refugees and expects to find homes for 5,000 more. “We decided we had to look after our own,” says the Rev. Robert Falls of San Francisco. “Who else would?”

            For all the problems, most of the new Cuban immigrants remain optimistic. Eighty-five per cent have been released from refugee camps and resettled, most are receiving some form of aid from relatives, relief agencies or the government, and many have found jobs that hold at least a promise of future self-sufficiency. One example is Nicolas Gonzalez, 60, whose picture on Newsweek’s May 26 cover illustrated the Cuban influx. After months of searching, Gonzalez recently landed a construction job. His wife works in a clothing factory and they live in a one-bedroom apartment in Miami’s Little Havana with four other refugees. “I had moments when I questioned why we were here,” Gonzalez admits. “I can understand how the hijackers feel, but I don’t feel sympathy. They should have patience.” The irony is that the refugees most likely to succeed in this country are those who understand just how slow and difficult the process will be.


Dennis A. Williams with Susan Agrest in New York, Pat King in San Francisco and bureau reports.