Mystery of empty Cuban raft found on Black Point appears to be solved

01/07/2013 4:49 PM

01/08/2013 4:02 AM

The mystery of the Cuban raft found over the weekend near Black Point in South Miami-Dade appears to be solved.

The cruise ship Carnival Valor rescued four Cubans on Dec. 30 aboard a Styrofoam raft that appears to be the same one that washed up empty, sparking fears that its passengers had drowned.

U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman Marilyn Fajardo confirmed Monday that the Valor picked up four Cubans and transferred them to a cutter, but added that officials were still checking whether the two rafts were the same.

A passenger on the Valor on Monday emailed El Nuevo Herald cell phone photos of the Cubans and the raft, which looked to be the same one that was found Saturday near the Black Point Marina in Cutler Bay.

The brief email noted the four rafters were picked up by the Valor at about midnight on Dec. 30. The U.S. Coast Guard was “a few miles away and was witness to the rescue,” it added, and the four “were returned to the American Coast Guard on Saturday 5 January.”

The passenger did not reply to emailed requests for an interview or further details, and could not be independently located.

The discovery of the empty raft Saturday sparked fears that its occupants might have died.

Nancy Perez, who spotted the beached raft during a nature walk and took photos of it, told El Nuevo Herald Sunday that a Florida Fish and Wildlife agent at the scene told her the occupants probably died. An agency spokesman Monday denied its agents made any such comment.

Perez also noted the raft contained an altar to Eleguá, a god of Afro-Cuban religions, and a Cuban national ID card. “No one abandons an Eleguá. If you believe in that and you put it in the raft, you don’t,” she added.

Cuban citizens who set foot on U.S. territory can stay under the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy. Those who are intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba by the Coast Guard unless they indicate a “credible fear” of persecution if repatriated.

The raft found near the Black Point Marina was made of Styrofoam blocks and wood planks, had an olive green tarp for sail and four oar posts.

It contained a large water container, several small bottles with sugared water and honey, empty juice cans, plastic bags with food crumbs, a blue lighter and what seemed to be a container of coffee.

U.S. authorities intercepted more than 1,270 Cuban migrants at sea during the 12 months that ended Sept. 30. Another 350 rafters made it to U.S. shores during the same period.

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