Dozens of Well-Dressed Cubans Come Ashore in Southwest Florida
MANASOTA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ The Cuban refugees waded ashore with freshly shaved faces, trimmed hair and not even a hint of sunburn.
As soon as they made landfall on this Gulf Coast beach, they unloaded their luggage from rubber rafts. Some changed out of their wet clothes into casual sweaters and jeans.
``They didn’t look like any boat people I’d ever seen,″ said Muriel DeLuca, a retiree who watched the early morning spectacle.
About 60 Cuban refugees reached Florida on Tuesday. Their appearance and unusual landing spot 170 miles north of the Keys raised suspicions they were transported by smugglers.
``Is this the U.S.?″ a refugee who came out of the water asked beachcomber Gary Grathmann.
When Grathmann said yes, the man responded ``Thank God″ and handed Grathmann a handful of coins _ from the Cayman Islands.
While immigration officials and police tried to sort out the Cubans’ stories, the refugees told reporters they had made the voyage from Cuba south to the Cayman Islands in September, and on Friday headed out on a 700-mile voyage around Cuba to Florida’s western coast.
In the Cayman Islands, officials said Tuesday that three boatloads of refugees had left there last week. They blamed smugglers.
An immigration spokesman in Washington told The Miami Herald that some of the Cubans said they paid smugglers to bring them out of Grand Cayman island on two powerboats.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Mackowiak in Miami said the trip was under investigation as a possible smuggling mission, but ``policy doesn’t allow me to discuss ongoing law enforcement.″
The Coast Guard later stopped and took into custody the crew of a 40-foot fishing boat flying the Cayman flag. Officials said they would try to determine if the crew had anything to do with the Cubans’ voyage.
The refugees said they made the crossing in a 40-foot fishing boat, which was confiscated, and another one, which disappeared. Sarasota County sheriff’s Lt. Bill Stookey said there was no sign of a second boat near shore.
Forty-three refugees, including six women, were taken to a community center where they were fed and questioned before being sent to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service’s Krome Detention Center outside Miami.
They will be allowed to apply for entry to the United States, said INS spokesman George Waldroup.
The Coast Guard detained an additional 17 Cubans on a cutter offshore. It was unclear where they would be sent; at the height of the Cuban exodus this summer, Cubans intercepted at sea were taken to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
One Cuban was hospitalized suffering from exposure, hypothermia, jellyfish stings and sunburn. Five others were treated and released to authorities.
The landing was the largest since the exodus of 35,000 rafters last summer. A Sept. 9 agreement, which ended that crisis, guarantees the legal entry of at least 20,000 Cubans a year to the United States.