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.