Cuban migrants in a fatal clash with the U.S. Coast Guard threatened the Americans with a machete before a collision Friday night that sank their boat and drowned a Cuban woman, the Coast Guard said today.
The death provoked anger in Miami's large Cuban community, already furious over an incident last month involving the Coast Guard's efforts to prevent illegal immigration from communist-run Cuba to the United States.
"If they don't want the people in this country, take them back, but don't kill them," one group of protesters at the Miami Beach Coast Guard station told reporters today.
The Cuban woman drowned and 11 others were rescued in a suspected illegal immigrant smuggling incident 10 miles off Florida's coast, northeast of Fort Lauderdale.
In Washington, the State Department said the U.S. government was "deeply saddened" by the drowning.
At the same time, the administration is determined to enforce immigration laws and "vigorously prosecute" any "unscrupulous" people who smuggle Cubans into the United States, spokesman James B. Foley said in a statement.
The Coast Guard learned the 25-foot wooden motorboat was heading for Florida from the Bahamas at about 7 p.m. EDT Friday, and a cutter intercepted it about three hours later.
Life jackets offered by the Coast Guard were refused, and a man on board waved a machete at crew members on a small boat from the cutter that neared the Cubans' vessel.
"He was waving it at the small boat's crew. I would call that threatening," Coast Guard Petty Officer Stephen Baker said.
The incident escalated as the Cubans threw life jackets back at the Coast Guard and used the machete to cut a line when the Coast Guard attempted to foul their boat's propeller, the Coast Guard said. The Coast Guard tried to stall the boat with water from a fire hose but failed. The boat crossed in front of the cutter, which struck the 25-foot vessel. The Cubans' boat sank within minutes.
The woman's body was found this morning after an all-night search.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) swiftly blamed Cuban President Fidel Castro for the incident, saying in a statement that his "40-year dictatorial grip over the Cuban people causes them to throw themselves to the sea in search of the freedom we take for granted."
The sinking came just a day after eight Coast Guard crewmen were suspended from law enforcement duties after a June 29 incident in which they used fire hoses and pepper spray to try to stop six Cubans from making it to shore just north of Miami Beach.
That clash, seen live on local television, sparked fury and road-blocking demonstrations by Cubans in Miami.
Under the controversial U.S. "wet feet" immigration policy for Cuba, Cubans picked up at sea are returned home, but those who reach shore are almost invariably allowed to stay. The policy has prompted desperate rushes toward land by groups of Cubans who come close to Florida.
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican from a heavily Cuban American Florida district, said today he would press Congress to end the policy. "The bottom line is that the Clinton policy of interdicting refugees and failing to go to the source of the problem, which is the Castro dictatorship, is at fault for tragedies such as these," he said.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Jeff Murphy said there had been "a few" incidents this year in which Cubans threatened crews with machetes.
The dead woman's body and the 10 men and one woman picked up from the vessel were being taken to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The migrants will be interviewed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
In a statement, the INS said those with credible fear of persecution in Cuba might be sent to countries other than the United States and that the others would be repatriated.