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Saturday, 9 June, 2001, 23:05 GMT 00:05 UK
Cuban refugees trapped in Haiti
Cuban refugee Orestes Betancourt at a Haiti fire station
The refugees face a life of hardship in Haiti
By Daniel Schweimler in Havana

A group of Cubans whose boat sank while they were trying to escape the Communist island has been left with a difficult choice - return to Cuba to face imprisonment or a heavy fine, or stay in Haiti, the poorest country in the region.

For now they are saying they would rather die than return to Cuba, which they fled aboard a makeshift raft.


We would prefer to die than be sent back to Cuba

Cuban victim
They were picked up by a Haitian boat when their vessel sank more than 300 km (190 miles) from their intended destination - the United States.

Things started to go wrong for the Cubans almost as soon as they left the island.

They were forced to wait for several days in a mangrove swamp before they could slip through the Cuban coastguard patrols.

Shipwrecked

Then a Cuban helicopter swooped down, the wind from its blades pushing their raft onto a coral reef. They lost their food and their motor was damaged.

A few days later the engine broke down altogether. They ran out of water and the raft began to drift. Then the weather turned and the boat started sinking.

Felix Santos Espinosa shows photos of his wife and son, still in Cuba
The Cubans have left their loved ones behind
A Haitian freighter saved them and took them on to Haiti, where the 12 Cubans - among them medical technicians, an economist and a farmer - have applied for political asylum.

"We would prefer to die," one of them said, "than be sent back to Cuba."

They spoke of the economic problems on the communist island and political persecution.

But the refugees don't know either French or the Creole language spoken in Haiti.

They have no money and little prospect of work. The Haitian economy is near collapse and the country is immersed in yet another political crisis.

Heading north

Thousands of Haitians leave, mostly for the United States, every year. Thousands more would probably go if they could.

They are not used to anyone escaping from anywhere to come to Haiti. There is little doubt the Cubans would rather go to their planned destination, the United States, which has a huge Cuban exile community.

With a recent change in the weather, there has been an increase in the number of Cubans trying to cross the 150 km wide Florida Straits for a new life in the US.

Under American law, if they set foot on US soil they can apply for, and will almost certainly get, permanent residency.

If they are picked up at sea by either Cuban or US authorities, then they are returned to Cuba.

But each year many - no-one knows how many - perish at sea.

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See also:

22 Sep 00 | Americas
New tension over Cuban immigrants
21 Sep 00 | Americas
US lets Cuban crash survivors stay
15 Jul 00 | Americas
Castro meets castaway Elian
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