Surfers tell of Cuban migrants' rescue

It’s unclear when the four men from Cuba got in trouble.  

They were first spotted in their 18-foot makeshift sailboat off Cayman Brac on the morning of Jan. 2. The Joint Marine Unit on the Brac escorted the four men who, police say, seemed to be OK, offshore.  

They showed up the next morning off East End in Grand Cayman in rough seas. Police Superintendent Adrian Seales said the police helicopter spotted them around 11 a.m. and the four men “indicated they were not in distress,” and they traveled toward the southern shoreline. 

By the end of the day, one of the men would be dead, drowned in the waters off South Sound. The three others were rescued by surfers taking advantage of the big waves that caused the four Cubans so much trouble.  

The surfers helped the men, who were holding onto truck tire tubes, ashore. Three men, including the one who was unresponsive, were on one tube, while the fourth held to another tube that has lost most of its air, according to one of the people who helped pull them from the water. 

Manuel Marino, 51, drowned near Sand Quay Island. Dalier Perez Arresoitia, 28, Lexy Sanchez Fonseca, 33, and Diosruel Barerro, 37, were pulled from the water and are now in custody. All four are from Santa Cruz del Sur, a town on Cuba’s southern coast, closer to Jamaica than Havana. 

The Cayman Compass requested interviews with the Cubans, but the Immigration Department turned down the request. Wesley Howell, a deputy chief officer with the Ministry of Home Affairs, said the men “are not permitted to give interviews for reason of their own security and our national security.” 

Mr. Seales said police investigators later learned the men had been on their way to Honduras. He said, “The vessel encountered extremely rough seas offshore and made attempts to seek safe harbor at Sand Quay.” 

J.R. Cameron went to South Sound for a “sunset surf” that Saturday with his brother and others. As they surfed near Sand Quay, off the southern point near the South Sound Community Center, a group of surfers called them over. “We got to the top of the break and saw some guys in trouble,” he said, but they thought another surfer had gotten hurt. 

He caught a wave and got closer, to see six or seven surfers helping the four Cuban migrants who were clinging to the two tire tubes. He said one man had handed off his surfboard to help the migrants get to shore. They had two choices – go around the break and try to get into shore or go straight through the rough break into the beach. They opted to go through the waves, Mr. Cameron said. 

Unnamed surfers helped the man on the deflated tube onto a beach near the point. The other three, along with the surfers, were pushed down to the ironshore. There, bystanders, including Mr. Cameron’s brother, helped pull the men over the sharp rocks to safety.  

According to Mr. Cameron and information released by police, a doctor nearby tried to resuscitate the man who had been unconscious, but by that time he had died. 

During the rescue, Mr. Cameron said, he did not see police or emergency personnel. He said he did see a boat go out to the Cuban’s boat later, and once he was onshore he saw a police boat drive by. 

Mr. Seales said the boat overturned in the rough seas off South Sound. Mr. Cameron said he didn’t see the boat capsize but did say it sank after the men were rescued. 

Police say they received a call from South Sound at 5:19 p.m. and the Marine Unit drove with a boat from their base in Newlands. Mr. Seales said they arrived at about 5:40 p.m., but the men were already on shore. 

Mr. Cameron said the men he helped pull out of the water all looked like “healthy dudes.” Of the death, he said, “I don’t get it, it doesn’t make sense.” 

Policies, treaty reviewed 

A series of internal policies for the immigration and police departments, along with a 1999 agreement with the Cuban government and United Nations rules on the treatment of migrants and refugees, guide how Cuban migrants should be treated.  

Migrants who come within 12 miles of Cayman are considered to be in territorial waters, but guidelines say that as long as they don’t come ashore, they can continue on their journey.  

The guidelines say that government officials and anyone else should not help the migrants, including giving them food and water or parts to repair boats and engines. The Human Rights Commission reviewed the existing policies in 2013 after it received a complaint calling “for government to allow private citizens to provide basic necessities of life – food, water, fuel and medical aid – to Cubans passing by Cayman by boat on their wait to other destinations.” 

The 2013 report, citing Immigration Department internal guidelines, states, “Cuban migrants cannot opt to continue with their journey if weather conditions are unfavorable in the opinion of the Cayman Islands Meteorological Department. They will be taken ashore and processed.” The report continues: “Where a vessel carrying Cuban migrants is threatened by grave and imminent danger every effort will be made to prevent the loss of life.” 

Mr. Cameron, the surfer who helped pull the men to safety two weeks ago, disagreed with the policy. “Where are the civil rights and human rights? Fix them up, send them on their way,” he said. 

The 15-year-old agreement with Cuba is also under review, with ongoing negotiations between the governments. In September, the Cuban ambassador to Jamaica, who oversees relations with Cayman, visited with government officials here to discuss changes to the agreement that spells out how Cuban migrants are repatriated.  

Mr. Howell, who has been involved in the negotiations with Cuba, declined to comment on the status of the talks. In September, he said, “The costs of receiving, processing, detaining and repatriating irregular migrants cost the Cayman Islands government approximately CI$950,000” in 2013.  

With a new agreement, Mr. Howell said, he hoped to shorten the time it takes to repatriate Cuban migrants and save money in Cayman. 

Cuban-Boat

The four Cuban migrants, photographed from the police helicopter, sail off East End on Jan. 3. Manuel Marino, 51, steers the makeshift boat from the rear. He later drowned off South Sound. – Photo: Courtesy of RCIPS

Cuban-Boat-Tube

The migrants held onto two tire tubes after running into trouble off South Sound. The tubes still sit on the beach near the ironshore where the men were pulled from the sea. – Photo: Charles Duncan
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