Cuban family struggles to return loved one's body

The body of a Cuban man who drowned off the coast of Grand Cayman in early January has been kept at the local morgue for two-and-a-half months while negotiations stalled over how his remains might be sent home.

Manuel Ramon Mariño-Vasquez, 51, was one of four Cuban migrants spotted in a makeshift 18-foot boat off Cayman Brac on Jan. 2. The men were escorted offshore by a Marine Unit patrol in the Brac and turned up in East End amid rough seas the next morning. Police said the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service helicopter spotted the migrants around 11 a.m. on Jan. 3 and that they had indicated “they were not in distress.”

By sunset on Jan. 3, Mr. Mariño-Vasquez had died off South Sound, apparently by drowning. The three other Cuban men were rescued by surfers near Sand Quay after their craft capsized.

Local police conducted an investigation, which has since been completed. The three survivors were repatriated to Cuba a few weeks ago, but the dead boater’s body was not sent home.

Mr. Mariño-Vasquez was not initially known to the local Cuban community in Cayman, and local pastor Andres Ramos only learned the man’s name because one of his fellow migrants had written it in a page of his Bible and given the book to Mr. Ramos.

Since then, Mr. Ramos’s wife Annie said, Mr. Mariño-Vasquez’s family in Miami and Cuba have made contact, pleading with the Cayman Islands government and anyone else who might help them to return the migrant’s body to Cuba.

Another local pastor, Helbert Rodriquez of the Cayman Baptist Church, said a church volunteer went to see whether Mr. Mariño-Vasquez’s body was still in the morgue about two weeks ago and confirmed it was still there. He has remained in contact with the family since then.

“The family has been calling from Cuba and Miami, asking me if I can help,” said Pastor Rodriguez. “They don’t want him to be buried here.”

The issue was money. Pastor Ramos said they were told it would cost $5,000 to send Mr. Mariño-Vasquez’s body back home. Local churches started up a collection about two weeks ago to try to raise the money for the man’s family.

At one stage, Pastor Rodriguez said, the government told a church representative that the migrant boater would be buried in Cayman. “The Cayman government said that since there’s nobody moving nothing, they will bury the body in Cayman. The family says please, don’t make this happen.’”

The repatriation of living Cuban migrants is a lengthy and costly task for the Cayman Islands government. Earlier this month, Ministry of Home Affairs Deputy Chief Officer Wesley Howell revealed that the government had spent nearly $1.6 million in 2014 on the detention, housing and repatriation of migrant boaters that arrive illegally on Cayman’s shores.

That cost is far beyond anything the local government has spent in recent years, due mostly to a large increase in the number of migrants coming to Cayman and partly due to security improvements made last year at the Immigration Department’s detention center for migrants in George Town.

Returning the bodies of migrant boaters to their families in Cuba is not an issue the Cayman Islands has been required to deal with very often, if at all.

In this case, the Ministry of Home Affairs has agreed to pay the full cost for returning Mr. Mariño-Vasquez’s body to Cuba, Mr. Howell said. However, the government was still trying to work out the logistics of when and how that would be done, he said. It was hoped the body could be returned sometime next week.

The number of Cuban migrants in 2015 seems on course to exceed the arrivals in previous years, with more than 115 having been spotted off the coast of Cayman Brac or Grand Cayman since January. That includes a group of 37 migrants who landed in Cayman Brac last Friday. They were flown to Grand Cayman, where they are housed in the Immigration Detention Centre awaiting repatriation. In 2014, a total of 143 Cuban migrant boaters arrived in Grand Cayman all year.

four-cuban-boaters

The group of four Cuban boaters was photographed from the RCIPS helicopter on Jan. 3.
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