The U.S. Coast Guard has repatriated 12 Cubans who were picked up this week in the Florida Straits trying to reach the United States. The case is unusual because of the type of vessel the Cubans used in the attempt to flee their homeland.
Coast Guard sailors see all types of vessels on the open waters off the coast of Florida, but many say they have never seen anything like the contraption they stopped earlier this week, about 60 kilometers south of Key West, Florida.
Lashed to several large oil drums was a 1951 Chevrolet flatbed truck. The makeshift vessel, with 12 Cubans on board, was chugging through the Florida Straits trying to reach the Florida Keys. Coast Guard Petty Officer Ryan Das says he and his colleagues will not soon forget the sight.
"The truck was a 1951 Chevy," he said. "The reaction was surprise. When we got the call it was reported as a surprise. When we showed up it was a truck and everybody was pretty amazed. The important thing to point out though was it was not a vessel designed to be at sea. It is really dangerous. It is very interesting and humorous but the important thing to point out is that this is a vessel that was not designed to be at sea at all."
The Cubans had modified the truck by dropping the drive shaft from the back axle to turn a propeller. The truck had then been placed on a pontoon supported by large empty oil drums. Coast Guard officials say they had no choice but to sink the truck, which would have been worth a small fortune in Cuba.
Coast Guard officials also say the 12 Cubans have been sent back home. Under U.S. law Cuban migrants intercepted at sea are sent back to Cuba. Those who set foot on U.S. soil are allowed to stay and apply for permanent residency.
Eleven other Cubans who seized a boat with four crewmen on board last week from a small port in northern Cuba were also repatriated this week. U.S. officials say they received assurances from Cuban officials that anyone found guilty in the case would not receive more than ten years in prison.
The case is controversial because earlier this year Cuba executed three men who tried and failed to seize a ferryboat in Havana and flee to the United States. Cuban-American lawmakers denounced the decision to return the Cubans this week as totally unacceptable.