Rafter who climbed lighthouse left Guantánamo Navy base, returned to Cuba

Group of Cubans atop American Shoal Lighthouse off Sugarloaf Key in standoff with Coast Guard on Friday, May 20, 2016.
Group of Cubans atop American Shoal Lighthouse off Sugarloaf Key in standoff with Coast Guard on Friday, May 20, 2016. Photos courtesy WSVN.

Alexei Leyva Céspedes hoped the rough seas that nearly drowned him and 23 other Cuban rafters would be the only obstacle he would confront on his way to the American Dream.

He did not count on the U.S. Coast Guard's tenacity in blocking the growing flow of undocumented Cuban migrants; the hard times he spent for several days aboard a cutter; climbing a lighthouse off the Florida Keys; and his inability to talk to the attorneys representing the rafters in court.

Two months later, Leyva abandoned the U.S. Navy base in Guantánamo, where the rafters were transferred while their search for asylum was processed, and returned to his hometown of Puerto Padre in the eastern province of Las Tunas.

“They told me I couldn't enter the United States, that I would have to stay on the base at least two years until another country agreed to give me asylum,” he said from Cuba. “I have family, two children and a wife. I couldn't live away from them so long.”

Leyva and 23 other Cuban rafters took refuge May 20 on the American Shoal lighthouse, seven miles off the Florida Keys. Amid a court battle that is still going on, four were returned to the island and 20 were sent to the Guantánamo base to await a grant of asylum from a third country.

Coast Guard officials said the 20 Cubans demonstrated a well founded fear of persecution if they were returned to the island, although none had been active in dissident groups.

Leyva said that his return home was not easy. After he was handed over to Cuban immigration officials by Guantánamo base authorities, he spent one night in jail with common criminals and was later transferred to Puerto Padre.

All the money he paid for the voyage to South Florida, and the hopes of finding a job that would allow him to move his family to the United States, went overboard. Back in Puerto Padre, one of Cuba's poorest towns, he's trying to get a permit to grind and sell corn.

“The only thing I've done all my life is work. That's what I wanted to do in the United States, to give my family a better life,” he said. “I hoped my work would be enough at least to buy food and clothes for my children, not like here.”

Leyva said he and another rafter came up with the idea of sending out a message in a bottle when they were held aboard a Coast Guard cutter — a message complaining of abuses that was found by a fisherman and made its way to the news media.

The Coast Guard confirmed the existence of the message and ordered an investigation. Crewmen blocked an attempt to send out a second message in a bottle.

Leyva, who said he was never questioned by the Coast Guard investigators, insists the abuses took place.

“From the start they were aggressive. When we climbed on the lighthouse, they did not want to give us water even though some of us were showing signs of dehydration,” he said.

He alleged that the Coast Guard also tried to sink the group's boat before they could reach the lighthouse.

“When they transferred us to the cutter, they totally isolated us from what was happening. We had no access to information, and they constantly threatened us with truncheons,” he said.

He acknowledged that it was difficult for the Coast Guard to handle such a large group in such a small space, but added that the Cubans were threatened verbally and with the use of tear gas.

“Only through other rafters who arrived later on the cutter and were returned to Cuba did we learn about the process in Miami courts to help us,” he said.

Coast Guard figures show there's been a significant increase in the number of Cuban rafters intercepted at sea. From Oct. 1 2015, when the 2016 fiscal year began, until this April, 2,350 rafters were returned to Cuba – the same number repatriated in all of fiscal 2015. Another 3,563 Cuban rafters were spotted or reached U.S. territory in the first seven months of Fiscal 2016, compared to 4,476 for all of the previous fiscal year.

“Conditions on the cutter were horrible. We had two meals a day, but they were small and bad. We spent days under the sun and nights under the moon, and barely got water,” said Leyva, adding that some days the rafters could not bathe or brush their teeth. “We spent seven days without taking a bath because we had no water. I never thought something like that could happen in the United States.”

Conditions changed radically after they were transferred to the Guantánamo base.

“They treated us well there, but they constantly told us that the wait could take at least two years. They also told me that if I went to a third country I would lose my Cuban citizenship and could never enter the United States,” Leyva said.

Ramón Saúl Sánchez, president of the Democracy Movement in Miami, said he was aware of the cases of Leyva and another rafter who has also decided to return to his home on the island, Félix Tornet Yero.

“If you keep someone in an isolated room and tell him that he's going to be held there for several years, and on top of that the person has family, it's understandable that person would decide to return to the country he was trying to escape from, because family ties are very powerful,” said Sánchez.

Sánchez, a long-time activist on behalf of Cuban rafters, said attorneys in the case will continue to argue that the rafters were “dry foot” on the lighthouse, and therefore should be allowed to enter the United States under the wet foot- dry foot policy.

“I feel like I am being watched in Cuba. I don't want to be here, but I have to work, to help my family and look for another way to get to the United States,” he said. He made clear, however, that he will not make another attempt to cross the ocean.