Fabiola Santiago

Stowaway risked his life once. U.S. shouldn’t risk it again by deporting him to Cuba | Opinion

In his cinematic bid for freedom, Cuban stowaway Yunier García never put anyone’s life at risk — only his own.

In the Swift Air charter flight’s luggage compartment, where a lot less cargo was returning to Miami than had arrived in Havana, the 26-year-old airport worker saw his ticket to freedom.

He didn’t compromise the weight of the airplane. He didn’t threaten anyone.

Where there was emptiness, this young father saw opportunity: A once-in-a-lifetime chance to be a free man, to live with hope, to take care of his family with dignity, even if from afar.

Without thinking about it twice, García hid.

Had there been better airport and airline security, the baggage handler might have been discovered hiding in the belly of the plane, but there wasn’t. He endured cold temperatures and dehydration and survived the 45-minute flight.

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“The evidence of the spontaneity of the event is that he didn’t even have water,” his attorney, Wilfredo Allen, told me. “The first thing he said when he got out at the airport [in Miami] was ask for water.

“If he would have planned it,” Allen added, “he would have put a blanket in the compartment. It was very, very cold in there.”

To deny García political asylum and deport him to Cuba — as the Trump administration has diligently pursued in immigration court — is to send him to a possible death if the Cuban government decides to make an example of him.

High-profile defections like his are treated as treason by the Cuban regime, and in the past, have been punished with execution. At best, other unsuccessful attempts to flee with less drama have resulted in life-threatening long sentences.

The minimum punishment García would face in Cuba for his act of desperation — an embarrassment to a government that wants to put up a front to the world that Cubans support the dictatorship — would most likely be 20 years in prison.

But, as unbelievable as it may seem, the Trump administration argued this week in a closed-door hearing before an immigration judge that executions like that of three men who hijacked a ferry in Havana in 2003 in a frantic attempt to flee are no longer the standard in Cuba.

Things have changed in Cuba, Trump’s Department of Homeland Security prosecutor argued.

García would be appropriately “prosecuted, not persecuted,” he said, putting the sham that passes for a justice system in Cuba on par with that of the United States.

This flies in the face of President Donald Trump’s hard line Cuba policy and the president’s sanctions and pronouncements in Miami about Cuba’s being a human rights violator — to which Cuba has responded with increased internal repression.

Did DHS not read the new Cuban Constitution that ratifies treasonous acts against the government as worthy of the death penalty? Or pause to reflect on the new law criminalizing works of art that show the government in a bad light?

Are those in charge of steering this case not aware of the barrage of news accounts about renewed crackdowns on independent journalists and dissidents? Cubans who disagree with the government aren’t just being arrested, harassed and released, as happened during the years of President Barack Obama’s rapprochement.

The government of Miguel Díaz-Canel is handing down stiff prison sentences for practicing journalism, for attempts to organize, and sometimes, for nothing but trumped up charges of being a menace to those in power.

No, the government’s attitude toward dissidence — and illegal flight — hasn’t changed in Cuba.

The punishment for exposing the flaws in Cuban airport security for García would be severe and include physical, emotional, and public abuse of him and his family, expert witnesses testified in the case.

García’s fate now rests in the hands of an immigration judge who will decide if the father of a 2-year-year old daughter — Daniela — he may never see again qualifies for political asylum. If he doesn’t, then who? He has an aunt in Miami supporting his stay and willing to sponsor him.

Despite evidence to the contrary, DHS tried to portray García as an ordinary law-breaker.

But he isn’t.

Yunier García Duarte.jpg
Cuban stowaway Yunier García, whose asylum claim is before an immigration judge, is pictured here with the 2-year-old daughter he left behind in Havana. Cortesía

García was “a model citizen in Cuba,” I’m told, so much so that he landed what is considered a job of privilege at José Martí International Airport, one in which he could earn tips in dollars.

The same job, however, allowed him to see the corruption among government workers, the mistreatment at the airport of Cuban-American visitors returning to help their families, the impunity with which airport personnel acted.

In other words, he saw the unfairness and injustice that permeates life in Cuba for Cubans while they put on a smile and a show of warmth and folklore for American and European tourists.

By observing fellow coworkers and through conversations with visitors, García learned that what he had been told for years were lies. And he saw that the likelihood of life changing under the current conditions would never come.

“The only difference between this kid, you, and me is time,” said Allen, once a Cuban refugee, too.

Others see this case similarly — and more than 34,000 people have signed an online Change.org petition asking the Trump administration to let García stay. Among his supporters is the iconic exile singer Willy Chirino.

“If I am deported, I will be tortured,” García told Telemundo’s Channel 51 in the only interview he’s given. “I came here because it is a country of human rights.”

If we still are such a country, we must grant this young man political asylum.

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”