The ‘Bay of Palmetto’ Landing
16 Cubans on a raft ignite the redrawing of the Honduran-Cuban relations

August 1st, 2006
by Thomas Tomczyk

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The refugees disembark their boar at Palmetto Bay Plantation. The 19 foot 'El Titano' was welded in on one of the refugees homes that launched in the middle of the night.

The refugees disembark their boar at Palmetto Bay Plantation. The 19 foot 'El Titano' was welded in on one of the refugees homes that launched in the middle of the night.

As Cubans see their immigration routes close one after the other, Honduras offers one of the last, indirect, ways of reaching the US. Honduras is the only country in the region that doesn’t have an agreement with Cuba about immediate repatriation of Cuban nationals arriving in the country illegally. Despite all Cubans needing valid passports and consulted visas upon arrival, Honduran authorities have been closing their eyes for years to the growing tide of Cuban economic immigrants. The Honduran government counters the US “wet-foot, dry foot” policy with its own “see no evil, hear no evil policy,” that has doubled the number of Cubans every year for the last five years. In 2006, more Cubans landed on the Honduran beaches than in the US.

The Honduran government policy has produced a growing number of Cubans braving the 400 mile long passage along with flourishing support and smuggling networks, allowing the Cubans to not only cross the borders to Guatemala and Mexico, but even to land in Honduras itself.

The timing of the Cuban Palmetto Bay crisis is auspicious because of the Honduran and US government stand off over moratorium on issuing of tourist visas to the US and Honduras working towards allowing for cheap Venezuelan oil imports and ending a four company oil import monopoly.

American vacationers at Palmetto Bay Plantation were surprised to see 16 Cuban refugees land at their resort. On July 6, after a 10-day journey, the refugees beached their 19-foot, metal boat propelled by a tractor motor and a sail made from a tarp.

After leaving Manzanillo, Gramma state Cuba, on June 27 and a brief stop at Cayman Brac, Cayman Islands, 14 of the original 30 refugees decided to disembark. Nine days later, twelve men, three women and an 11-year-old girl landed on Roatan.

None of the refugees had a passport, let alone a necessary consulted visa. Bay Islands chief Mario Pacheco arrived on the scene within an hour and after consulting with Tegucigalpa took the refugees ID cards and asked them to repair the vessel to leave the island. So a 12 day long standoff begun.

In the first week of July, 22 Cubans were found by fisherman off the coast of Puerto Cortés and allowed to continue their US bound journey via land. On Guanaja, as late as May, Cuban refugee groups were allowed to land and continue their US bound journey via land. The Roatan case was treated differently and a few people were beginning to ask why.

Local government officials, including Mayor Jackson, applied pressure to have the refugees fed and put up at a hotel. “Let’s offer them what we would hope they would give to us if we landed in Cuba.” Mayor Jackson, whose municipality took care of and paid for the refugees room and board during their stay on Roatan.
This is the second time the Pacheco’s intervention has ignited a national stand off, after the March incident with five foreign tourists who came for a Henry Morgan vacation remained under police surveillance during their week long stay. Since then little has changed and as Honduras hasn’t regulated its conditional visa procedures, nor signed any agreements with Cuba.

Although the choice to brave the ocean route to Honduras at the beginning of hurricane season was a risky one, the 16 Cubans who landed on Roatan soon faced another obstacle. Within three days, the Honduran government begun negotiations with Cuba to formalize Honduras’ policy toward refugees and possible repatriations.

When the Cubans landed on the beach at Palmetto Bay Plantation, their 19-foot vessel was in a dismal state. The motor had broken and a leak caused by a collision with a reef eight days earlier required regular bailing of water from the hull. Six inches of water stood in the bottom of the boat and the old tractor motor sat useless after conking out on the refugees’ final push toward the island. Planted in the bow was a makeshift mast and sail, cobbled together from a tree branch, wooden planks and a tarp. A small space in the bow covered by another tarp gave the weary travelers protection from the elements.

After ten days at sea, the deck was littered with soaked and soiled articles of clothing: pairs of jeans and collared shirts, empty plastic drums that used to carry the water that sustained the refugees as they plowed through the ocean, half-eaten tins of pork luncheon meat, metal knives used to poke and pry at the tins, and chunks of soap.

The Cubans’ last glimpse of land before then was of Cayman Brac, the island where they had let off 14 additional passengers who decided not to make the voyage. According to Cayman Net News, theirs was the most crowded boat of Cubans to arrive in the Cayman Islands this year.

As long as they do not land on shore, Cuban refugees who arrive in the Cayman Islands are given food, fuel and time to make repairs to their boats. The Cayman Islands’ official policy requires Cuban refugees to sail from the islands in their own or another Cuban vessel or face repatriation. The 16 who stayed in the boat chose to brave the sun and storms at sea because they did not want to go back to Cuba.

As she stood on Palmetto Bay beach clutching her Bible and thanking God for their arrival on dry land, Anna Corona’s blue eyes are alight, imploring. She said she decided to leave Cuba with her husband, Miguel Lahera Pérez, and their 11-year-old daughter, Carmen, because she earned only $15 a month working as a hospital administrator. Although she holds a bachelor’s degree in economics, she could not afford to buy basic supplies, such as soap, for her family. With their ration cards they would receive, “a small piece of bread every day … meat was ‘unavailable.'”

The 16 refugees – 12 men, 3 women, a 16-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl, were friends and neighbors in a town Ciudad de Pescadores in Manzanillo. The group built their boat inside Anna and Miguel’s house and at 3am, the night of their departure, tore the walls down to get it out onto a street and into the sea.

Ten days later, when they saw the north shore of Roatan on the night of July 5, their battle with the ocean had come to an end, but their plight as illegal immigrants in Central America was just beginning.

Cubans may not enter Honduras without a passport, and a consulted visa but Honduras is the only Central American nation that does not automatically repatriate Cubans. Honduran immigration authorities have been handling a growing number of refugees during the past couple years. Growing number of Cubans consider it easier to sail to Honduras and then head northward to cross the U.S. border with Mexico, instead of traversing the 90 miles between their island and Florida, where they will likely be intercepted by the US Coast Guard and sent back to Cuba.

In August 2005, Boston Globe estimated that between 8,000 and 9,000 Cubans had attempted to sail to Honduras in the past three years. Between 80 and 100 were never heard from again.

To date, Honduran immigration officials’ approach to Cuban refugees has been arbitrary. Approximately 350 Cubans have arrived on the shores of Honduras this year, more than two times the number from 2005. Only three people have been deported to Cuba during the last four years and until now the Honduran government has given Cuban refugees permission to stay in the country for 15 or 30 days, enough time for most of them to proceed north to Guatemala, Mexico and US.

Honduras’ Ministry of Immigration identified smuggling as one explanation for the recent increase in refugees during its July 10 meeting. Similar to the method used to smuggle Cubans into Mexico, Honduran immigration authorities believe smugglers transport refugees in speed boats to points close to the Honduran shore, then drop them off on run-down boats with the supplies necessary to reach the mainland.

There is no evidence that the 16 Cubans who landed on Roatan were smuggled here. A Cayman Net News report confirms that the boat that landed on Roatan landed on Cayman Brac on June 29 with 30 passengers. Net News received unconfirmed reports that 14 people jumped off the boat and swam ashore, where they were to begin the repatriation process back to Cuba. The boat was last seen on the north side of Cayman Brac at approximately 1 a.m. on Friday, June 30.

The Mexican and Cuban governments believe that smuggling rings are responsible for transporting Cubans the 180 miles to the Yucatan coast. Cubans pay between $3,000 and $5,000 to make the journey to Mexico. Although 61 Cubans were detained in Mexico during the first quarter of 2006, this may not accurately reflect the number of Cubans entering the country if smugglers are being protected by Mexican officials. U.S. Customs and Border counted 6,744 Cubans who entered the U.S. through Mexico between September 2004 and September 2005.

Mounted US tourists snap photos of one of the Cubans washing at the edge of the water.

Mounted US tourists snap photos of one of the Cubans washing at the edge of the water.

The week after the 16 Cubans landed on Roatan, the Honduran government began negotiations with Cuba to craft official policy for dealing with refugees, but nothing concrete was agreed upon. After 10 days of waiting in a hotel in Coxen Hole, the Cubans began to get restless. They were allowed to leave the hotel to collect money from family members living in the US, but they still didn’t have the identification cards.

“It’s like we’re prisoners,” said Anna. “I’m mortified,” she said blankly, over and over again. But humane treatment plays a part in the Honduran governments’ rhetoric in regard to Cuban refugees. Though Espinal ordered the Cubans to leave Honduras as soon as possible, he told La Prensa, “Meanwhile, they will receive humane treatment.”

There are worse prisons than Coxen Hole’s Los Cumbres Hotel, its garden densely planted with tropical shrubs and views of the ocean from the white tiled balconies. The refugees also received board and two meals a day, courtesy of the Roatan municipality.

Miguel thought the island immigration authorities wanted money. “I know what they want,” he said with lowered eyebrows, rubbing his thumb across the pads of his index and middle fingers. As a former state employee, a delegate to Manzanillo’s Municipal Assembly, Miguel can be charged with treason if he returns to Cuba. His wife thinks his position gives the group leverage with Cubans in the U.S. who want to criticize Castro. She believes that some Florida politicians would be pleased to help a government official who chose to leave the communist state in order to further delegitimize Castro.

Finally after 12 days of a bureaucratic limbo, the 16 were issued a 30 day immigration permit to remain in Honduras for ‘Humanitarian reasons’ by Honduras’ director general of immigration. On July 17 the group boarded the Galaxy boat bound for La Ceiba. With money from family in the US and some friends they made on Roatan, the group continued their journey to Guatemala and the US. Roatan’s Catholic community gathered Lps. 7,000 for their journey and gave them a letter of recommendation to Guatemalan and Mexican parishes. [/private]

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