August 28 , 2007

Eyes on Cuban detainees

By Tamara Mckenzie, Assistant News Editor. The Nassau Guardian, August 28, 2007.

Ask any immigration official at the Carmichael Road Detention Centre about their most watched or problematic inmates and "the Cubans" would most likely be the response. These inmates, fluent speakers of Spanish in a country dominated by English, are tagged as detainees who cause harm and destruction. Moreover, they are considered to be the craftiest of all detainees, according to Chief Immigration Officer Alexander Burns.

The Cubans will sit and watch every movement on the compound said Burns, and they will do whatever it takes to escape, even if it means scaling a 10-foot wall or cutting through a heavily barbed wire fence in an effort to taste freedom and hopefully smuggle themselves to the land of the free and the home of the brave: The United States of America.

As of yesterday, there were 66 Cubans detained at the Carmichael Road facility. The number is down from the 71 not two weeks ago. The decline is the result of five Cubans who remain at large after escaping a week ago today by cutting a hole through the chain link fence behind their dormitory and scaling the perimeter wall of the detention center by using a homemade grappling hook.

A sixth Cuban, having been injured, returned to the center after the escape. Raysi Herrera Puente, Rene Medina Martinez, Barbaro R. Martinez Valdes, Mariobel Consuegra Rodriguez, and Edgar Cardet still remain at large. Their flawless escape in broad daylight went unnoticed by what was reportedly a small complement of Royal Bahamas Defence Force officers who were posted at the facility during its visiting hours.

And while a full-scale search and investigation is still underway, Cuban nationals, who are often detained longer than any other group, are pegged more than any other at the Centre as those who have been entangled in various foiled and successful escape attempts in recent years.

"We try to keep a closer eye on the Cubans, but if a person is detained for 24 hours they have more time to look for all the loopholes and the inconsistencies," said Burns. "We try to do our best, but they [the Cubans] are watching us as well," he said, adding that the Cubans who are housed separately from other detainees are not allowed to move beyond the perimeter wall of their building in an effort to thwart any bid to escape.

"I think it is because of their upbringing and training," Burns said about the efforts of the Cubans to plan well-thought-out escapes. "Some Cubans are required to serve in the military and some of them would have that basic military training to survive."

The Long Haul

Haitians who are held at the detention center are repatriated to their hometowns within one to two weeks. But a strict protocol guideline must be followed before any Cuban is sent back to Cuba, officials say.

"We have to interview them and this information goes to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs," said Immigration Deputy Director, William Nottage. "Foreign Affairs contacts the Cuban Embassy and they send diplomatic notes back and forth between the government of Cuba and The Bahamas. Because Cuba is a socialist society, before Cuba accepts any of its nationals back, they have to secure housing, etc., and then they allow them to come."

The average stay for a Cuban national at the detention center is eight to nine months, but there are some who remain there for up to one year and sometimes longer, Burns said.

Bursting at the seams

The Carmichael Road Detention Centre, located on Golden Isles Road, can house 600 detainees, but according to Burns, an "ideal" capacity would be 200 detainees. Any number that exceeds 400 is really "stretching the situation," he said, adding that more buildings are needed to comfortably house detainees. "There were four buildings but one was damaged in October 2004 by the Cubans and they [the government] never did anything to repair it," he said.

As of yesterday, there were 451 detainees, of which the latest group of individuals - 143 Haitian migrants - arrived over the weekend after they were apprehended in Bahamian waters.

This latest addition to the detention center also led National Security Minister Tommy Turnquest to concede that the center is not built to house such a large number of detainees.

There are presently 338 Haitians at the facility, 66 Cubans, 33 Jamaicans, two Nigerians, two Guyanese, one national of St. Kitts, one Turks &Caicos Islander, one British, one American, one Honduran, one Ukrainian, one Congolese, one Peruvian and an individual whose nationality cannot be determined. Head counts at the centre are conducted three times a day.

According to Burns, it costs the government between $18 and $20 a day to feed each detainee. Because of the large number of detainees, immigration officials say they will soon conduct a costly repatriation exercise - mainly of Haitian nationals - to the tune of $28,000 for a Bahamasair flight. A charter would cost about $45,000, depending on the size of the aircraft. The costs will be debited from the $214,000 set aside for the detention center in the government's 2007/08 fiscal budget.

A history of uprising

Last week's escape was not the first involving Cuban detainees.

Many in the past have been successful in bypassing the 8-foot chain link fence surrounding the center by snipping the wire and using a mattress to avoid injury. Earlier this year, a 10-foot perimeter wall was built, but it did little to deter the recent escapees.

Officials say that many Cubans who escape do so to unite with their families in Florida, but the bilateral agreement with The Bahamas and Cuba states that all detainees must be returned to Cuba, even though several demonstrations have been staged on U.S. soil to have the Cubans sent to the United States.

In 2004, several Cubans rioted and set fire to a dorm at the detention center while attempting to escape. The uprising happened less than 24 hours after a report by police investigating allegations of torture and abuse was made public. Police and Defence Force officers were forced to fire rubber rounds to subdue the rioting detainees. As a result of the disturbance, 11 Defence Force officers and nine detainees were injured. Two detainees were treated in the hospital with injuries caused by the rubber rounds.

In Dec. 2004, Cuban-Americans demonstrated against The Bahamas in front of the Bahamas Consulate General in Miami, calling for the detainees to be sent to Miami. Demonstrators alleged that The Bahamas had been abusing Cuban detainees at the detention center, placing a negative spotlight on The Bahamas.

Also in 2005, the detention of two Cuban dentists, David Gonzalez Mejias and Maralis Darias Mesa, drew international attention to The Bahamas. While in Cuba in 2002, the two won a U.S. immigration lottery but were not allowed to leave Cuba. They left the country anyway by boat and were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard in April 2005, but the boat's engine stalled near Elbow Cay in the Cay Sal Bank, some 90 miles from Florida.

The Americans turned the men over to Bahamian authorities as required, but they were imprisoned in the Carmichael Road Detention Center for 11 months. The men applied to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for asylum, but relatives said no reply was ever received and despite numerous attempts by American interlocutors to free the men, the Bahamian government simply stonewalled the matter, leaving the family of the men to go public with the matter via the U.S. press.

The men were eventually freed in March 2006 and were flown to Jamaica and onwards to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to be united with their families.

Almost a decade ago in March 1998, the Detention Center grabbed international headlines when nine Cubans, including four baseball players and a coach, drifted into a Bahamian fishing boat and were dropped off at a tiny fishing outpost on Ragged Island, about 80 miles north of Cuba. Just months earlier, Cuban baseball star Orlando Hernandez who had also been detained at the Centre, won freedom with the help of Miami sport agent, Joe Cubas.

Meanwhile, as officials at the center keep a watchful eye on Cuban detainees, the facility is still fraught with other challenges, according to Burns, noting that a full-time doctor is needed on the compound to regularly treat detainees, there is a shortage of staff, and more buildings are "desperately" needed to prevent overcrowding.

"We also need a holding cell for troublemakers because fights will break out from time to time and we have nowhere to place them," said Burns.

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Copyright 2006 The Nassau Guardian. All rights reserved.


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