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.

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