TAMPA — Four Cuban men who fled the island in a military patrol boat could lose their lives if they are sent home, says a Tampa lawyer who wants to represent them.
The U.S. Coast Guard intercepted the boat in international waters several weeks ago and took the men to Guantanamo Bay naval base, where their fate is uncertain.
Ralph Fernandez, who often deals with Cuban immigration issues, said Friday he fears that Cuban authorities will claim the men are terrorists and demand their return, or that U.S. authorities will ship them out to a third country, "which will not be safe because of the long reach of Cuban intelligence'' services.
Fernandez was contacted late last month by Jose Diaz, a Tampa cabinetmaker who immigrated to the United States in 1994 and is the uncle of one of the men and cousin of another.
Diaz, 52, said his nephew, Alexi Hernandez, 21, had been conscripted into the Cuban military. He got into trouble when he repeatedly took off from his base and returned home. At one point, when military officials retrieved him, he got into a shoving match with a superior and was facing serious punishment, Diaz said.
But Hernandez had a friend in the military whose job was to guard a patrol boat. The two of them, plus two other men, stole the boat in late May and struck out for the United States.
No violence was involved, Diaz said. "The only problem was they wanted to seek liberty in a free country.''
Diaz said his sister in Cuba, who is Hernandez's mother, found out about the boat theft when Cuban authorities came to her house and asked about her son's whereabouts. Diaz said he and his sister talk frequently by cell phone.
"She is crying all the time,'' Diaz said. "If they send him back to Cuba, they will kill him as an example to others. He stole a boat.''
U.S. policy toward Cuban immigrants has evolved since Fidel Castro came to power five decades ago.
Originally, just about anyone who ventured across the Florida Straits could gain asylum and economic opportunity. Refugees packed into leaky boats would cheer when the U.S. Coast Guard showed up at sea, because that meant the rest of their journey would be safe.
Current policy, sometimes dubbed "wet foot, dry foot,'' is more stringent. Cubans who make it to U.S. soil on their own can stay. But if U.S. authorities intercept them at sea, they will be repatriated to Cuba.
People can also gain asylum — or at least get passage to a third county — if they convince U.S. authorities they will be persecuted if returned to Cuba.
That's the argument Fernandez wants to make if he can get to Guantanamo to serve as the men's lawyer.
Diaz, who had heard about the boat theft from his sister, called Fernandez because the men didn't show up in Florida.
Fernandez's office asked U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio to help find out what had happened.
After several weeks of phone calls and letters to government agencies, Castor confirmed that the four were being held in Guantanamo. Spokeswoman Ellen Gedalius confirmed Friday that Castor's office is trying to help, but did not provide further detail.
Rubio's office also contacted immigration officials, spokesman Alex Burgos said, and was assured "that the Cuban migrants are safe and being afforded all rights under law.''
Spokesmen for the Pentagon and Coast Guard said they were unaware of the incident and could not elaborate.
Deciding how to treat the four Cubans could prove complex, Fernandez said.
"The Cuban government is going to be enraged by this,'' he said. "They will be building a case to suggest that these guys may have used force in essentially commandeering a vessel — that this is something far more than somebody's flight to freedom.''
If violence did occur, he said, international sensitivity over terrorism will come into play "and I will have real problems with that.''
But so far, U.S. officials have not suggested that the boat was riddled with bullet holes or stained with blood, Fernandez said, and he thinks he would have heard by now if that were the case.
Even a nonviolent boat theft could raise issues.
In 2003, 12 Cubans stole a private boat from a marina, taking three watchmen along with them, then fought with U.S. Coast Guardsmen who intercepted them at sea. After the Cuban government accused the 12 of theft and kidnapping, U.S. authorities sent them back.
One the other hand, Fernandez successfully defended three Cubans who stole a crop duster in 1996 and flew it to the United States.
Thefts during a clear quest for political freedom garner lots of support in Florida's Cuban community and sympathy from politicians, Fernandez said.
"If there was violence, there isn't a politician who is going to touch it. If there isn't, a lot of people are going to join the effort to bring them here.''
Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at [email protected]