Simmering tension among Cuban migrants

Inside the immigration detention center

Amid rows of decrepit bunks, men lie sleeping on tattered mattresses surrounded by the few belongings they carried with them on the dangerous sea journey from Cuba. 

The smell of tobacco permeates and the sound of Spanish guitar plays softly on a television music channel. Through the barred windows, a few men can be seen sitting in the yard, smoking and talking. A pregnant woman lies on a corner bunk, feeling the cooling breeze of an electric fan. 

Washed clothing hangs everywhere around the single-story dwelling where 36 Cuban migrants live in tight proximity, battling boredom and mounting frustration as they wait for news on when they will be sent back home. 

Fleeing poverty and government oppression at home, the migrants have endured worse conditions than this, surviving days at sea on ramshackle, homemade boats, in thwarted efforts to reach the United States.  

Then they had hope, now they have none. 

One of the prisoners, who gives his name as Iguacio de la Terga, makes a gesture indicating shackles on his wrists, telling us, “We are in prison here. Everybody who is here, they are wasting their time in this country. The only thing we want is to get out.” Tension is simmering at the Cayman Islands Immigration Detention Centre.  

“When we left Cuba, we knew we could lose our life in the sea. So long as we could help our families, we did not mind. They should give us the boat we came in and we could continue on our way,” said Mr. de la Terga, a pharmacy technician who says he earns $30 a month in Cuba. 

A group of 11 detainees broke out of the holding facility over the Easter weekend. Six of them remained on the run this week. 

Prison officials in charge of the center acknowledge that increasing numbers of migrants are putting a strain on the building, converted from the foundations of an aborted hospital construction project in the mid 1990s. 

Neil Lavis, the prisons director, said it is a tricky balancing act between the requirement to detain the migrants until they can be sent back to Cuba and the desire to treat them humanely. The detainees are allowed to wander the grounds and can play football or lounge around in the adjacent yard, but the lights go out at 10 p.m. and a razor-wire fence surrounds the premises. 

“Clearly, we have to contain them. They are not prisoners, but we have to contain them or we get situations like we had the other week with them going over the fence,” said Mr. Lavis. 

The Cubans housed at the center all sleep in the same large hall and share bathroom and kitchen facilities. The arrival of another boat would likely be enough to take the already cramped center beyond its capacity. 

Mr. Lavis acknowledges that new buildings may have to be found if the trend of increasing immigration between Cuba and the U.S. continues. Eight prison officers have been diverted to patrol the detention center, which authorities acknowledge is in need of investment.  

Some basic work has been performed by the Cubans themselves. They can’t be paid, so they earn candy and Gatorade for completing chores, including cleaning and maintaining the center. 

They seem pleased with the compensation, if not with their general circumstances. 

One of the men, Osmani Humbert Daialo, points to a bag of Snickers bars, biscuits and energy drinks, indicating that he will bring it back to Cuba for his children. 

As a gym teacher in Cuba, he says he earned $23 a month and had hoped to make it to the U.S. to make some money to send to his family. 

“Many of us are educated professionals and we don’t see any future in Cuba,” he said. “If we can continue, it would be better for everyone. If they don’t want to help us, then at least send us back to Cuba … we are young people, we feel stressed-out locked up here.” Some of the Cubans, like Rogelio Joel Santana, have tried to reach the U.S. several times. 

He said engine trouble ended this, his third effort to escape Cuba. He and his compatriots used a makeshift sail to reach Cayman Brac. 

“It took four days to get here,” he said. “If they would give us some help, we could continue on. That is all we want. I feel stressed, I feel like I am in prison.” 

Under the terms of a memorandum of understanding with the Cuban government, the Cayman Islands must repatriate any Cuban migrants who set foot on these shores.  

Boats that simply pass through are allowed to continue on their way. More than 160 Cuban migrants are estimated to have shown up in Cayman’s waters in the first three months of 2015, compared with 24 per month on average in 2014, and just four per month in 2013. 

Fears that special status and residency rights currently enjoyed by Cubans who make it to the U.S. may be revoked as relations between the two countries are normalized appear to be behind the increase. 

“It does make it more difficult to manage. We are looking at various contingencies if this trend continues,” said Mr. Lavis. He said other housing is being looked at, as well as adapting another part of the current building to make it fit for use as a shelter. 

Increased numbers also raise the tension at the center, though the attitudes of some groups differ from others. 

“Some groups just want to get away and they will take any and every opportunity to get out of the center; others are more passive,” Mr. Lavis said. 

Inside the immigration detention center

Cuban migrants inside the Immigration Department’s detention facility. – PHOTO: JAMES WHITTAKER


A Cuban man who arrived in Cayman by boat bides his time inside the fence of the detention center. – PHOTO: JAMES WHITTAKER


  1. How I feel about this is that in no way our governments have been making good decisions concerning the Cuban refugees.
    First thing in Cuba NO CUBAN dares to make an uprising, tries to escape or complain about being locked up. There are no robberies of banks, gas stations or other business places. Cubans in Cuba behave with respect. They may take a few things and try to sell to make an extra dollar but the consequences are felt when this is done.
    Anyone who thinks that the Cuban Government skin-up with anybody is wrong. They put down their rules and they stand by them. Visiting Cuba and spending a weekend in Havana tell you nothing about Cuba and its people. You have to live there to know. Like any other persons who have tasted good food and worn good clothes and shoes they want the same for themselves and their families too.
    I still believe that there is no need to keep a detention centre because it cost the government more stress and more money to keep them. Why did we have to sign a dry foot agreement that these people would be detained here and then returned after three or four months. Its crazy. But we are always sucking up to anyone except our own, trust me.
    It is much cheaper and less stress to assist these people with fixing their boats, giving them food and water and even if it takes giving them a new engine so that they can be on their way to fulfill their dreams. I just do not agree with this dry foot agreement between Cayman and Cuba of detaining the refugees and calling on politicians to take another look at making things more comfortable for every one. If this is not done we are going to have a major problem very soon mark my word.

  2. I must agree with Twyla on this.

    What happens to these people when they are returned to this communist country with no human rights?

    Are they punished, shot or given a warm welcome?

    No need for our government to lift a finger. Just allow private citizens to help them on their way.

  3. Next time you write a story on this try to find out how many of these so-called refugees are repeat detainees. Last I was in the detention centre a high percentage of the inmates were definitely not there for the first time.

    Despite this they still claimed that being returned to Cuba would result in imprisonment or death. When asked why they had been able able to leave a second, third or in several cases a fourth time there was no answer.

    These people are economic migrants, they are not refugees fleeing oppression in Cuba and the sooner we get our heads around that the better. When they land here they should be arrested as illegals and sent straight back – end of story.

  4. Reading this article for the first time, and looking at the photos of this article. I just cannot see the Government of the Cayman Islands been smart and humane in holding these people as prisoners and treating the way that they same to treated, if Government has no intention of helping these people. Why keep them in prison ? This is costing the taxpayers money, with no return on that money. I think that it is very negligent and dangerous for that huge propane tank to be so close to the people, that could be a other problem that the Government face, if that tank was to explode.

  5. It is easy to confuse an unsophisticated reader with "he earns $30 a month in Cuba."
    What $30 a month can buy in Cuba is more important. The whole nation somehow lives on $20-30/month. They sure can’t buy cars or the latest Iphones, but they can survive, though in poverty. Snickers and gatorade is junk food that adds no value to quality of life, but slowly destroys health.