Isla Mujeres Mystery ~ Lynda L. Lock
Cuban boat abandoned at North Beach January 2015

The make-shift rafts, hand-built boats, and in one case a hot tub transport hopeful people from Cuba to the eastern coastline of Mexico.  Cubanos desperately looking for a better life.

When we moved to Isla Mujeres in 2007, we knew nothing of the Cuban refugee situation other than what was broadcast on American news; refugees periodically arriving in Florida in dangerously unsafe boats.  Fascinating stories, but it didn’t affect our safe lives in Canada.

Cuban boat east side of Isla Mujeres June 2009 

Since our first winter on Isla there have been about a dozen, or perhaps more, landings that we are aware of.  The Cubans are looking for a less oppressive life-style, and for the most part they have strong family connections with Mexico, especially Isla Mujeres.  Isla’s most well-known pirate, Fermin Anonio Mundaca de Marecheaga became a famous and wealthy slave trader in the Caribbean, selling Mayan slaves from this area to plantation owners in Cuba.  In 1860 when the British campaigned against slavery, Mundaca rented out his ships to the Yucatan Government, which continued to capture Mayans and sell them to Cuba. Family members of both Cuban and Mexican fishermen visited back and forth for centuries, before international rules and treaties made it difficult to do so. 

Across from Naval Base – May 2009

According to long-time islanders, after the communist takeover of Cuba, the business of importing undocumented Cubanos has been a time-honored way to make extra money.  When finances become tight, anyone with a strong boat and two or three fast motors can do well supplementing their income.   Across from the Navy base on Isla Mujeres, there is a long string of seized boats, rafted together.  These are boats confiscated from smugglers; smugglers of contraband and of people.

Refugee boat – April 2012

The actual laws governing Cuban refugees is a confusing situation.  For example in the USA the Cuban Adjustment Act was changed in 1995 to what is referred to as the Wet Foot-Dry Foot policy.  If they are captured at sea (wet foot) they are returned to Cuba and possibly imprisoned for the remainder of their lives, or they could be sent to a third country that was willing to take the refugees.  If they were captured on land in the USA (dry foot) they were given a chance to apply for an expedited permanent resident status.

Discarded wet clothing – November 2010 near our house

In 2012 the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board did an extensive study on what happened to failed asylum seekers who were returned to Cuba, and to their family members who had stayed in Cuba.  The information was scarce and difficult to validate, but officially the returning person is only incarcerated if they committed a crime before fleeing Cuba.  However the option for the officials to declare the returnee a traitor, and ‘blacklist’ that person preventing him or her from obtaining employment or other services is a very real threat.

Tourist inspecting boat that landed on September 4th 2015

In Mexico the laws are a bit fuzzier.  It would appear that if the Cubanos are captured, either on the ocean or on land, the official policy is to return the people to their own country.  However, in chatting with various islanders that is not always the case.  Because of their close family ties, and the historical background the refugees are treated differently. 

There have been in past years dramatic rescues of prisoners that are being transferred to prisons.   There have been cases of the refugees being arrested, then released with the admonishment to show up for their hearing in a week’s time.   There have been reports of officials pointing north and stating: “The US border is that way.”   Being Spanish speaking the Cuban refugees assimilate quickly into the Mexican culture, receiving dry clothing, food and assistance from the locals.   

A wink, a nod, a knowing smile when we ask questions of our Mexican friends.  Legends.  Stories.  Nothing documented.

Cozumel boat arrived April 2016 – Por Esto photo

As for the most recent arrival on Isla Mujeres of nine men and three women, and another larger group of men captured in Cozumel we haven’t been able to learn what will happen with them.  According to recent news reports, the authorities believe that both groups and their make-shift boats were ‘planted’ a short distance off-shore by bigger boats, enabling the people to safely reach land. 

Either way, stay or return, it is an uncertain future for the refugees.  Hopefully their status will get sorted out and they can get on with building a better life here in Mexico.

Pieces of a Cuban boat drifting on north-east side January 2015

And for those of you who have been following the story of the five missing island fishermen – the aerial search for their boat, the Anastacia, is now centred over the Honduras.  Missing since March 30th, there is still hope for their safe return.   
Hasta Luego
Lynda & Lawrie

Five fishermen and boat missing since March 30th

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