The Cayman-Cuba connection

Cuba, not Jamaica, is the Cayman Islands’ nearest neighbor.

The Cuban archipelago Jardines de la Reina is only about 90 miles northeast of the Cayman Brac Lighthouse, about the same distance from Cuba to Florida.

The relationship between Cayman and Cuba cannot be circumscribed in terms of the countries’ official diplomatic dealings, which have remained cordial — even friendly — in the decades since Fidel Castro’s revolution.

The fundamental economic models of Cayman (international financial center) and Cuba (socialist Shangri-La) could hardly be more different, but the philosophic odd couple is bound by enduring ties of a historic, geographic and familial nature.

The proximity of the countries, separated only by relatively calm seas, meant Caymanians and Cubans were free to travel to and fro — for example, on turtling excursions in Cuban waters. That naturally led to families being formed where one parent was Caymanian and the other Cuban, and thus children being considered Cuban-Caymanians or Caymanian-Cubans, depending on where they were living.

It’s the same sort of phenomenon connecting Cayman to our regional cousins Jamaica and Honduras, for example, as well as the United States.

What makes the state of affairs between Cayman and Cuba different, obviously, is the shunning of Cuba by the First World since the U.S. imposed its embargo more than a half-century ago. While there are signs that this Cold War leftover may be thawing, and quickly, political and economic circumstances continue to compel Cubans to attempt to flee their homeland for the sake of hope abroad, even if that means entrusting their lives to ocean currents and hodgepodge vessels more accurately described as floating objects than proper boats.

While geopolitical conditions have changed dramatically in the hundreds of years since Christopher Columbus individually espied Cuba and Cayman, sailing conditions have not. Thus Cayman has found itself in an awkward and precarious position — with strong links to both Cuba and the U.S., and in the path of Cuban migrants hoping to land in Latin America.

The presence of Cuban migrants in Cayman territory poses a real humanitarian quandary. Cayman is far too small to harbor all Cubans seeking refuge and does not have the influence to arrange for an acceptable alternative, for example, sending them to the U.S., which bears responsibility for the situation in the first place (whether rightly or wrongly is of no consequence here).

So Cayman is forced to walk a fine line, providing flights to and from Cuba, facilitating the journeys of legal Cuban travelers and winking at the presence of U.S. passengers who may not have their government’s permission to travel to Cuba. For the Cuban migrants who come into Cayman waters, the current official policy allows seaworthy vessels to continue on their journey, but prohibits Cuban migrants from staying on shore and Caymanians from rendering assistance to them.

Adding wrinkles of complexity are United Nations guidelines giving migrants landing in Cayman, like anywhere, the ability to apply for political asylum, as well as local residents’ practice of providing food, water and supplies to migrants in need — even if it must be done out of sight of authorities.

The current arrangement is far from an elegant ideal, but it may be about as perfect as we can reasonably hope for, given the imperfections of the world.

As our local representatives prepare to visit with Cuban officials to discuss updating the 1999 agreement on Cuban migrants, they should bear in mind that Cayman’s relationship with Cuba has always been one primarily characterized as between people, not governments — and during negotiations take care to remember that many in the U.S. Congress remain vigilant of the lurking specter of Communism in the Western Hemisphere.


  1. Cuba is 90 miles north of us here in Cayman Brac. In the old days, 1930s, 1940s, early 1950s, Brackers breathed sweet breezes from the burning sugar-cane fields of Cuba. Communism as a political ethos is dead everywhere in the world except for China, North Korea and Cuba. There is no threat to the US from Communism since it was abolished in The Soviet Union by the wise Russian government of Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika leaders. Now Russia is a rich Capitalist country with Vladimir Putin at its head. Putin is not America’s best friend, given his alliance with Syria, the genocidal country with Bashar al Assad freely killing his citizens, his people, without any intervention from western countries. Because of our proximity to Cuba, the beautiful ancient island that shares many of the wondrous geological features, the same flora and fauna of the Cayman Islands, it would behoove The CI Government to extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban leadership and people, and to the many thousands of refugees who have sailed and foundered upon our shores in leaky, derelict boats, with Cubans trying to escape their harsh lives under the last bastion of Communism in our Western Hemisphere. For 30 years the small patchwork boats have been coming to Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, and the Cuban refugee problem is no nearer a solution than it was for past decades. This fearsome and poor boatlift is a shame upon Caymanians who would live in peace with their neighbors all over the Caribbean. Sooner or later – hopefully sooner – China’s and North Korea’s draconian Communist governments will go the way the Russian Communist empire went, the way the ancient Roman and Greek and Egyptian empires went – all of them, gone with the wind.

  2. I am amused by the reference to Americans transiting through Grand Cayman to Cuba in breach of the travel restrictions. This has been going on for years, more than a decade to my certain knowledge.

    Most of them aren’t going there as tourists, I have met a few. Their job is to start opening up Cuba for US investment and guess where the potentially most lucrative markets are? Tourism (both stayover and cruise ship)and real estate.

    And what will this do to the Cayman Islands? I think you can all figure that one out without much help. My suggestion is to make what you can of what you have now because it is not going to last much longer.

  3. Nan,

    Watch more BBC and CNN, they always tell nothing but truth.

    Syria, the genocidal country with Bashar al Assad freely killing his citizens, his people, without any intervention from western countries.

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