Like most other 18-year-olds, Dayro Andino Leon was determined to find his own way in the world. For Dayro, that meant leaving his home and country. Living in Cuba’s police state was not what he envisioned for his family, especially his young wife and their 1-month-old daughter.
So he did what so many others do: He joined a group of neighbors who got on a makeshift boat that was barely seaworthy and headed toward the United States. If they were afraid of the turbulent, shark-infested waters, they did not tell their families. They almost made it. But they were intercepted by the Coast Guard, just 25 miles off the U.S. coast.
Cubans intercepted at sea are supposedly interviewed by a member of the Coast Guard to determine if they qualify for special consideration for asylum to enter into the United States. Dayro had a good claim: He was a military deserter. The return of any Cuban deserter guarantees imprisonment under brutal circumstances. Incredibly, Dayro was returned to Cuba with the other refugees and, sure enough, was taken by State Security thugs while the others were allowed to go free.
At no time was he allowed to speak to or see his family. He was transferred to the Red Beret Military Unit in Cienfuegos province. His cell mates said that he was behaving erratically and informed the guards, according to independent journalist Alejandro Tur Valladares on the radio show Cuba Today. Dayro was not known for that type of behavior. Could he have been drugged? What we do know is that the 18-year-old was found dead in his cell, hanging from a bed sheet.
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It has been called a suicide, but was it? We may never know. What we need to know is why the Coast Guard repatriated this young man when they had to know that his fate was sealed upon return to the Communist island.
Perhaps the Coast Guard official who interviewed Dayro thought he was evading military service rather than deserting. A mistake can be made if the interviewer does not speak Spanish well. Someone who has worked closely with members of the Coast Guard tells me that this is often the case. If so, the interviews leave much to be desired.
Unfortunately, the mission isn’t to find asylum seekers; the goal for the Coast Guard is to return all Cuban rafters to the island. If Dayro had known that, would he have embarked on that treacherous journey? Would he still be alive? His tragic death is one of many thousands.
The number of Cuban rafters has increased dramatically over the past few years. In 2014, 2,059 Cuban rafters were intercepted in the Florida Straits. On Oct. 9, the Associated Press reported the gruesome finding of four Cubans who had drowned at sea. They were said to have been bitten by sharks, their faces unrecognizable. These four are not unique, South Florida morgues are full of drowned Cuban rafters yet to be identified. Experts believe one in four die in attempts to leave Cuba by water.
One of the worst cases on record occurred in August when 34 migrants were stranded for one month on the high seas before they were found by Mexican fishermen. Just 15 were found alive, and two died later.
Only the most desperate flee Cuba this way. Others have crossed the Mexican border, while more than 22,000 have arrived from a third country this year requesting asylum. They leave for political and economic freedom, the common denominator being freedom.
Too many young men and women risk it all coming to our shores. Dayro Andino Leon had a better chance than most because he was picked up by the Coast Guard. But something went terribly wrong, and he was returned to Cuba where he died under suspicious circumstances.
He was picked up but sadly was not rescued; that is something that ought to make us all bow our heads in shame.