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'Crash in the sea,' Havana tells Cubans

Their stolen plane out of fuel, the fleeing families ask for help and are refused, they say.

By DAVID ADAMS

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000


MIAMI -- The pilot of the stolen crop-duster was lost. There was nothing but open ocean all around.

The plane carrying him, his family and other relatives was almost out of fuel. Worse still, Cuban officials on the island he was fleeing, were offering no help at all.

The pilot, Angel Iglesias, 36, had already asked Havana air traffic control for his coordinates and help in reaching the Florida Keys. But to no avail.

"Just tell us how to reach land -- any land?" he asked a second time on the radio. "We're out of fuel."

When the answer came from Havana, Iglesias turned to the rest of the passengers, a horrified look on his face. "Havana tower said "crash in the sea,' " he shouted over the engine noise.

They fell silent, as the realization spread they might all die. No one said anything so as not to frighten the three children aboard.

Moments later Iglesias saw a freighter making its way through the Gulf of Mexico. He did the only thing he could. Judging the waves carefully, he ditched the aging Soviet-era biplane in the sea.

Seconds later 28-year-old Pabel Puig and his brother, Judel, 23, were pulling the other eight Cubans out of the wreckage. Judel, a poor swimmer, handed life jackets to the other passengers.

The plane stayed afloat long enough for everyone to get out. But not Judel.

"Go! Swim for the boat," Judel, 23, shouted to Pabel, looking toward the lifeboat that had been lowered by the cargo ship's crew.

Pabel Puig turned and swam for the boat, just yards away, he said Thursday. "And when I turned around, my brother was gone. I couldn't see him."

Through tears, Puig offered that dramatic account of Tuesday's plane crash off the west coast of Cuba after U.S. immigration officials released him and five other survivors to Miami relatives.

Neither Puig, nor Iglesias and the other survivors, spoke directly to reporters who gathered Thursday outside a county refugee health center in Little Havana. Puig's account was related by his father, Isidro Puig, and Tampa lawyer Ralph Fernandez who flew to Miami late Wednesday to represent the family.

"He is overwhelmed, barely able to speak," said Isidro Puig, a Hialeah mechanic, who last saw his sons seven years ago on a visit to Cuba. "This is bittersweet. I lost a son, but one has been saved. I am happy and sad at the same time."

If their account is true, Havana's response to their distress call may have played a big role in Thursday's decision to grant the survivors permission to enter the United States.

Although the survivors' story could not be immediately corroborated, Fernandez said he hopes to obtain air traffic control tapes from official U.S. sources.

"Everyone in the cabin knew what was going on from what the pilot was saying. Nobody doubts it was evil intent," he said.

Six of the Cubans were granted permission to stay in the United States after checking out of a Key West hospital. The three others, a couple still hospitalized and their child, are also expected to be legally paroled into the country as soon they are fit.

Under an international migration accord between the United States and Cuba, all nine would normally have faced a grilling at sea by U.S. immigration officials. Unless they could show "credible fear" of persecution back home, they would have been repatriated to Cuba. For the ringleaders, that likely meant jail on charges of air piracy. Instead, they were all brought ashore by the U.S. Coast Guard.

That decision not surprisingly outraged Cuban officials. They complain it violated migration accords with the United States as well as international air piracy laws.

"There was a crime. They stole the plane. So they should send these people back to Cuba," said Fernando Remirez, Cuba's top diplomat in the United States.

A report Thursday in Granma, the official Communist Party daily, called the flight "more than a hijacking, it was air piracy to commandeer an airplane destined to fumigate and fertilize fields of rice, a basic food for our people."

By providing sanctuary, Washington is effectively encouraging others to commit similar reckless acts, Cuban officials add.

But U.S. officials insist everything was done by the book.

The fate of the Cubans -- whether to transport them to the United States for medical treatment or return them to their homeland -- had to be coordinated among several agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard and the FBI.

Despite some of the legal and logistical complications, in the end it came down to a pure humanitarian issue, said Maria Cardona, spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

As bureaucrats wrangled over what to do, a decision was made to send a Navy surgeon to the freighter. Dr. Michael Clark, a flight surgeon at Boca Chica Naval Air Station, ruled that all eight of the bruised and cut survivors needed to be X-rayed to diagnose any internal injuries. That could be done only by transporting them to a hospital on dry land.

"The Coast Guard said American policy is wet foot, dry land," Clark said, referring to the U.S. practice of allowing only Cubans who touch land to stay. "But their policy doesn't really affect my policy.

"These people were in a plane crash," said the Macon, Ga., native, who spent 45 minutes on Wednesday tending to the survivors aboard the freighter that rescued them Tuesday.

"I'd check one person and I'd say this person was injured and looks fine, but what really was the injury? . . . And then, I guess, the human factor took over."

After checking each of the survivors and deciding that some could have had internal injuries, Clark radioed the Coast Guard.

He told himself, "These people should be in a hospital. They (Washington) make the policy, then they can work it out."

As it turned out, none of the eight had suffered internal injuries. They mostly had bad bruises and cuts.

First to be evacuated was Rodolfo Fuentes, 36, who was flown to a hospital in Key West suffering a mild concussion, a back sprain and a severe head cut. The others followed late Wednesday.

Immigration officials say that once the decision was made to bring the Cubans ashore, U.S. law left no options. Under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, any Cuban who reaches U.S. soil is entitled to stay in the country.

But Cuba says that law violates accords signed with the U.S. designed to stop illegal departures.

Critics of U.S. policy agree.

"The whole policy is structurally flawed," said Damian Fernandez, a Cuba scholar at Florida International University. "So these desperate escape cases are going to continue."

Meanwhile FBI agents also investigated whether the crashed plane was seized as part of a hijacking or whether the group had simply flown out of Cuba on a stolen plane. That distinction was important in determining whether a criminal act had been committed that might disqualify them for entrance into the United States.

The survivors told the FBI the group had left Cuba as part of a conspiracy that involved the pilot. Although trickery was involved, they had used no force or threats.

Their story was confirmed by reports from Cuba. Flight engineer Juan Galiano told Reuters he accompanied Iglesias Tuesday when they set out for work aboard the crop-duster.

He said Iglesias duped him into getting down from the plane by telling him a lie about going to pick up a check. He then crossed over the tarmac to where his family an friends were waiting.

That was enough to convince the FBI.

But critics are more skeptical and wonder if election politics in the United States might have played a part. In a tight election run-up, the Clinton administration and Vice President Al Gore are more sensitive than usual to Florida's Cuban voters. After the storm in Miami over 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez's return to Cuba, it doesn't hurt to throw them the occasional bone.

"It's hard to believe that electoral issues didn't play a part," said FIU's Fernandez. "Maybe not for the bureaucrats, but Gore, that's different."

Health clearly wasn't the only issue. "There were a lot of issues," said Fernandez, a lawyer who specializes in cases involving anti-Castro Cubans. "Immigration cases of this level have politics permeating through and through."

But Fernandez credited the government with coming to a speedy realization of the potent drama and publicity surrounding the case.

"They did the right thing. This was a powder keg case in an unstable community," he said.

Fernandez also said the INS decision also took into account the close family relations of those on board the plane. Iglesias, the pilot, brought along his wife, Mercedes Martinez and two sons, David, 7, and Erick, 13. Martinez is the Puig's sister.

The other passengers included the injured man, Fuentes, his wife, Liliana Ponzoa, and their 6-year-old son, Andy.

"There was too many human factors in this case," Fernandez said. "How can you send anyone back in the chase for freedom."

- Information from the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times was included in this report.

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