U.S. officials release Cuban coast guardsmen who defected

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

MIAMI -- Four Cuban coast guardsmen who defected in Key West earlier this month have been released by U.S. authorities.

The Cubans, who left the communist island Feb. 6 aboard a government-owned patrol boat, were released Friday, Border Patrol spokesman Keith Roberts said Monday.

The men have been assigned to a migrant relocation program financed by the U.S. government and run by the U.S. Catholic Conference, said Tania Medina, processing manager of the Cuban-Haitian Program in Miami.

Within two weeks, they will be sent to one of nine U.S. cities outside of Florida to begin their new lives, Medina said. The men have not yet specified which city they prefer.

Last-minute decision

The Cubans initially told police their decision to defect was made at the last minute. But in an interview with The Miami Herald published Monday, the men said they planned their defection for seven months and concocted a story to mislead Cuban radar operators.

"We spent seven months preparing this," said Edgar Raul Batista Gamboa, 30.

He said the men decided to leave on a night when Cuban leader Fidel Castro was making a speech at Havana's Karl Marx Theater. The guardsmen radioed headquarters, saying they were chasing an intruder near the theater. They knew the radar operators wouldn't be able to tell whether the blip they were watching was one boat or two.

The Cubans reached the dock of a Key West resort before dawn, docked at a resort and surrendered to a police officer. Cubans who make it to U.S. soil are usually allowed to remain in the country, while those intercepted at sea are generally returned to Cuba.

Immigration and Naturalization Service and Border Patrol officials declined to disclose details of the case.

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