The Cuban Migrant Crisis


An international drama that began inside the walls of a dank detention center in The Bahamas has seen scenes of protest play out on the streets of Miami, unexpected intervention by Panama, and demands by Cuba. Each of the parties involved has some answering to do.

The whole series of events has been nothing short of soap opera-esque, in the darkest way possible. A video showing alleged abuse of Cuban detainees in a Bahamian immigration detention center, a denial of the abuse by Bahamian authorities and claims the video was faked, leading to protests in Miami against the Bahamas by Cuban Americans, including hunger strikes, and calls to boycott The Bahamas.

This was returned with a undiplomatic threat by the Bahamian foreign minister that Floridians should think twice about trying to boycott a country which brings millions into theirs, followed by a tit-for-tat Florida travel advisory for Bahamians by their own foreign ministry. The Cuban detainees were brought before the courts on charges of faking the video defaming the Bahamas, before the protests by their countrymen in Florida led to them suddenly being offered  asylum in Panama in light of the abuse claims – or so it seemed.

This offer brought an end to the protests. However it was shortly followed by a move by the Bahamas to repatriate the detainees to Cuba notwithstanding the asylum offer. Ensue a resumption of the protests, and most recently, claims by a US congresswoman in Florida that Bahamian officials admitted to US State Department representatives that they knew the video was real and the offending officers at the detention center have been fired (as of the time of publishing this blog, the Congresswoman’s claim has been rebutted by the Bahamian officials).

In the meantime, threats of violence were made against the Bahamian consulate in Miami, and most recently, claims that the Bahamas decided ultimately to repatriate the detainees to Cuba despite offers of asylum in Panama to ensure that they would not have a chance to speak out about their abuse in The Bahamas. The Bahamas claimed it was only repatriating the Cubans in accordance with an immigration agreement that stated that any Cuban who did not qualify for political asylum would be returned.

Meanwhile, today the Bahamian government denied that there was ever an offer of asylum from Panama. This was despite claims in the international media, including the Associated Press, that a statement from the Panamanian Foreign Ministry confirmed it had done so. Panamanian Honorary Consul in The Bahamas, David McGrath, latterly admitted no official contact had been made by the Panamanians with The Bahamas on the subject of the offer. What with this and the Bahamian Foreign Ministry’s statement warning Bahamians against traveling to Florida, it seems a little like the idiots have taken over the diplomatic asylum (pun intended…)

Who is at fault here? The Bahamas does in many ways appear to be caught in the middle, in a decades-long fight between the US and Cuba – more so a fight imposed upon Cuba by the US. Cubans seeking a life apart from their communist homeland have long used The Bahamas as a leap pad to the United States. The US encourages Cuban migration to the US by continuing sanctions against Cuba, despite condemnation on an annual basis by the UN general assembly, and by allowing the continuance of the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy that enables Cubans which reach US soil to remain in the US – a more generous policy than exists for any other nationality.

Once they reach The Bahamas, Cubans – depending on how long they have been outside of their country – may or may not be permitted to return, thanks to a punitive policy imposed by their own government. Under this policy, Cubans who have been outside of the country for 24 months or more can lose their right to return without losing their citizenship or other rights such as access to free healthcare, or property. This 24 month period is double the year that was previously allowed prior to some liberalising measures introduced by President Raul Castro.

In the case of those Cubans who have missed the deadline to return home, The Bahamas is placed in the position of finding a third country to send them to. No easy feat.  Many Cubans have been acknowledged by the Government to have languished in Bahamian detention centers, unable to return home, or go elsewhere. Under these circumstances, they have made complaints about maltreatment – including physical abuse, but also inhumane conditions, such as inadequate feeding, or bedding. There is a sad logic that anyone who spends a long time in a place is likely to see the better and worse sides of that place, and by the mere fact of their extended stay within it, possibly engender a sense of their powerlessness among their guards which might encourage abuse.

So what made this occasion different? The Cuban Americans’ protests began after a video purporting to show Cuban detainees in the detention center was shown on a Spanish language news channel in Miami. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Bahamas immediately denied the authenticity of the video.

To be fair, the man shown kicking the Cuban men in the video speaks with what sounds to the trained ear most like a Jamaican accent – not Bahamian – which could suggest that he was a fellow Jamaican detainee made up to look like an officer for the purposes of the clearly quite effective video. However, skeptics pointed to numerous past claims of maltreatment in the center, and of reports by the US and UN which suggest violations of minimal conditions.

The airing of the video in Florida raised the ire of the Cuban American community, including garnering vocal support and attacks on The Bahamas from high level politicians – Miami Mayor, Tomas Regelado, and US Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both born in Havana, Cuba – in ways that ironically demonstrate one of the primary reasons why the Cubans were in detention in The Bahamas in the first place – the power of the Cuban-American lobby in Florida. It is this lobby which has for so long stood in the way of the lifting of the embargo against Cuba, which has impelled so many to leave its shores.

The involvement of this vocal lobby appeared to have stimulated the (apparent) asylum offer from Panama, and as of today, a backtracking by The Bahamian government to suggest that they will indeed probe the Cuban’s claims – and that while the Bahamian State itself is not carrying out abuse of migrants, its possible individual officers may be – an interesting semantic twist in the whole affair.

Meanwhile, the very existence of this video points to a development that the Bahamian Government would do well to take heed of.  The Government has routinely denied access to the detention center by media, both domestic and foreign, and to reports compiled on conditions in the center. Despite its advanced developing country status, The Bahamas’ progress on issues of rights is impeded by a lack of a Freedom of Information Act. They are able to get away with it because those seeking information have no legal recourse.

The fact that the video’s authenticity was believed to be real even by many Bahamians and strongly by the relatives of those who have been though the system shows the need for The Bahamas to clean up its act on this front. As a country buffeted by economic forces from many sides – faced with the poverty of Haiti, and to a lesser extent, Cuba, on its southern border, and the overwhelming economic and political dominance of the US to its North – and a certain cultural insularity that is bred of geographic smallness, there is a level of xenophobia among the local population that manifests itself most distastefully in unchecked abuse of foreigners in situations of vulnerability – such cases routinely come out of the woodwork, but are not always pursued, out of a sense of powerlessness felt by the victimized migrant, or visitor.

What is changing is the ability for the detainees to take matters into their own hands. Whether the video in question was fake or not, there exists the ability for them to create the video on their cell phones and export it from the facility. This points to how technological advances will begin to outpace the ability of governments to maintain control where they would like to. Just as China seeks to clamp down on the use of the internet by its people, fearing spread of dissent and information contrary to the regime’s interests, even The Bahamas is finding itself feeling the sharp end of the technological stick as far as attempts to maintain control over the provision of information are concerned.

But ultimately, whether or not The Bahamas cleans up its act on this front, the extended detention of Cubans in Bahamian facilities – whether being treated well or otherwise – will only arise again unless the US and Cuba change their policies. Economic sanctions, long an aberration and Cold War hangover that lacks any kind of economic or political justification, must be removed by the US, which is simply punishing regular Cubans by denying them goods and services that others in the region  – and with far worse human rights records around the world – enjoy.

A more coherent immigration policy that does not encourage risky leaps of faith by Cubans to see if it might land them on US shores, while turning away those who don’t quite make it, would would make more sense coming from a country that claims to be looking out for the best interests of Cubans.

Without this, Cubans will continue to be impelled to risk their lives and their well-being by leaving their homeland in hope of putting their dry foot on US soil. A policy that in many ways simply epitomizes a longstanding game of one-upmanship while encouraging people to leave their homeland out of desperation and vain hope cannot be sustained.

The fact that in calling for humane treatment of the detainees, Ros-Lehtinen denounces the “Castro Dictatorship”, takes validity from the force of her complaints in favour of the detainees. For too long have overstated claims comparing Castro to the worst of all political leaders, failing to take into account standards in education and health, to rival developed countries – including a higher life expectancy than the US (79.3 years vs. 78.2, according to the UN). Such vicious attacks reduce the room for reasoned argument and progress in relations between these two neighbours, that would actually improve the well being of Cubans.

Meanwhile, Cuba must stop treating its own people like traitors should they leave the country. To be denied basic rights of citizenship because you leave your homeland is surely inhumane, and only provides the US with ammunition for its hypocritical and extremist behaviour as far as Cuba is concerned. It plays a large role in the reality that many Cubans will spend months or even years in foreign detention centers when unable to find a way home, or to their intended destination.

Notwithstanding the forces beyond The Bahamas’ control – Cuban and US policies which it can do little to shape – it is incumbent upon the Bahamian government to ensure that those who come to The Bahamas are not denied their human rights, and to show that they are willing to be open about, and address infractions relating to, conditions at the center. The Government claimed that they repatriated 24 Cubans in light of an agreement to send back Cubans who had not received political asylum, and yet the UNHCR has stated that The Bahamas does not have an institutionalized asylum process.

It is only by taking progressive steps in this direction, and not through blustering attacks on the protesters, on the media and on the detainees, and via blatantly tit-for-tat (un)diplomatic advisories, that The Bahamas can ensure that its reputation does not become collateral in the soap opera that is the love-hate relationship between the US, Miami, and Cuba.

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