Last exit to Florida for boat people from Cuba finally set foot in US

They had left their native Cuba on homemade rafts, planks strapped to the inner tubes of lorry tyres, facing several days and nights in stormy, shark-infested waters to reach the Land of the Free. Yesterday, 17 months later, they finally stepped on to American soil.

There were 124 of them, singing, beaming, some wrapped in American flags, carrying their belongings in black rubbish bags as they stepped from a charter plane at Homestead air force base near Miami. They were the last of about 30,000 Cuban refugees flown from the US military base at Guantanamo Bay, on the eastern tip of their own island, where they had been taken in August 1994 by US Coast Guard vessels, sometimes after drifting at sea for more than a week.

It was the ultimate irony: returned to the island they had risked their lives to flee and initially warned by President Bill Clinton that they would never be allowed into the US. Mr Clinton changed his policy last May and announced that all Cubans at Guantanamo would eventually be admitted.

That was good news for them, but not for Cubans who set out after that date. Under his revised policy, Mr Clinton said all new "rafters" who reached US shores were subject to deportation, and any picked up at sea would be returned to Cuba. The Coast Guard has since returned 133 to Havana, 24 of those in January, showing that Cubans are still trying to flee the country, though not in the numbers of August 1994, when Fidel Castro ordered his security forces to turn a blind eye to the exodus.

With the departure of the last Guantanamo refugees, the US closed the sprawling camps of olive-green tents and plywood that had once been home to more than 30,000 Cubans and 20,000 Haitian boat people. Most of the Haitians were returned to their own country while only a few, mostly children, were allowed into the US. The last group left the camps in November.

While Cubans were traditionally granted political asylum under US post- Castro policy because they were fleeing Communism, the Haitian boat people, though fleeing a brutal military regime in 1994, were officially considered "economic refugees" and therefore not eligible for asylum.

At their peak, the sun-scorched camps at Guantanamo - nicknamed Gitmo by US soldiers assigned there - were like a small town as refugees created their own makeshift schools, churches and baseball and basketball grounds. At one point, there were more than 8,000 US military personnel assigned to supervise them.

Before Mr Clinton's May 1995 announcement that all would be allowed into the US, frustration led to at least 60 suicide attempts - although only one man is known to have died - and several riots. Several hundred returned to Cuba under handover agreements.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral