Alejandro’s Odyssey: Escaping to Florida on a Water Bike

Photo: United States Coast Guard District 7

By Eloy Viera Cañive (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – Alejandro Tamayo Chacon was arrested by force. Police officers broke into his home without a warrant and dragged him to the patrol car, with his mother who had tried to stop the arrest. The arrest was recorded by family members and posted on social media. That was on July 12, 2022.

Hours later – thanks to statements to Telemundo51 from Tamayo’s wife, Gloria Salmon -, we learned that the young man was one of the three Cuban rafters who were intercepted by the US Coast Guard on July 9, 2022, approximately 60 miles south of Key West, while trying to reach the US on a water bike. Alejandro and his travel companions were returned to Cuba along with another 70 rafters, who had also been intercepted by the US authorities in recent days.

Why arrest Alejandro Tamayo after his return to Cuba?

According to Gloria Salmon’s statements, the police officers who arrested Alejandro said that he was being charged with the theft of the water bike he had used when trying to emigrate. After his arrest, the Government also seemed to charge the rafter with resisting arrest.

The arrest and following charges against Alejandro Tamayo and his companions should be seen as the Cuban regime’s most common response to stopping irregular migration by sea. I say sea because irregular migration (by other means) has been used by the system as an escape valve mechanism to ease political tension, especially during times of crisis and instability. In the last year alone, the Cuban Government has promoted and used alliances within the region – Nicaragua, in this case – to become involved in a migration wave with over 160,000 Cubans who have reached the US illegally.

Nevertheless, figures indicate that this wave (which peaked in March and April 2022) could be waning. In April, 34,911 Cubans reached the US; in May, 25,697; and in June, 16,245.

As the number of migrants reaching the US via the Central American route is falling, the number of Cubans taking to sea has increased. The US Coast Guard had intercepted almost 2,000 Cubans trying to reach the US, between October 1, 2021 and up until May 24, 2022.  But between the end of May (May 24th to be exact) and July 19th 2022 – less than two months -, the US authorities stopped approximately 1,470 Cubans at sea.

The number of rafters so far this year far exceeds figures in previous years; except for 2016, when 5,396 seafarers were intercepted. It exceeds the 2017 number, when 1,468 were captured and far exceeds the 2018, 2019 and 2020 numbers, years when only 259, 313 and 49 rafters were intercepted, respectively. This figure has been on the rise again, since 2021. In the 2020-2021 fiscal year, US authorities intercepted 838 Cubans.

The arrests of Alejandro Tamayo and his companions come at a time when there are more and more people migrating by sea and it responds to the Government’s need to stop it with repression. The Cuban Government has proven its lack of willingness and ability to push other strategies to encourage Cubans to stay in the country and, as a result, we shouldn’t be surprised by the idea of persecution and violence as a mechanism to discourage us from crossing the Florida Strait.

The proof? They continue to uphold and are enforcing stricter sanctions in the new Penal Code, approved by the National Assembly in May 2022, against those who leave national territory by illegal means. The legal document stipulates that anyone leaving the country illegally “regularly” could stay up to eight years in prison.

Migration agreements

Nevertheless, using reprisals and violence to stop emigration goes against the commitment Cuba made when it signed successive migration agreements with the US. These agreements state the US is committed to intercepting Cuban rafters at sea and to return them to Cuba. Meanwhile, the Cuban Government committed itself to using dissuasive and not coercive measures to prevent the irregular migration stream to the US. It also said that they wouldn’t retaliate to Cubans who are returned by the US Coast Guard.

Yet, in January 2017 – right at the end of the Obama era – the Cuban and US Governments sat down to have migration conversations again and they issued a Joint Statement in which the US committed itself to eliminating the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy, among other points; and both Administrations committed to “discouraging outright any illegal acts linked to irregular migration, [promoting] efficient bilateral cooperation to prevent, and process human trafficking, as well as crimes linked to migration movements that endanger their national security, including the hijacking of planes and vessels.”

The latter commitment has been used by the Ministry of Interior (MININT) to complain that the US migration policy for Cubans is responsible for encouraging violent and criminal acts linked to illegal migration. In June 2021, MININT reported that 82 Cuban rafters had been returned, including people who had, in theory, taken part in the “theft of the Lista Quinta boat, which is associated with the Santa Cruz del Norte Sport Fishing Base, in Mayabeque.” In the statement, they recalled commitments for collaborative efforts and the persecution of crimes outlined in the 2017 Joint Statement.

Does punishing the theft of a water bike go against migration agreements?

The Cuban Government has justified Alejandro Tamayo’s arrest with the argument that they are persecuting him for the theft of a vessel and not his unlawful departure from the country. However the Cuban Government has identified the theft of the water bike as an act that – despite the strange means – could be replicated in a context where many people long to escape, whether that’s on a kite surfboard or a polyfoam boat.

Law 115 of the Maritime, River and Lake Navigation Act recognizes a vessel as “any floating structure with a gross tonnage under [500] or with an engine with a propelling force under [50] kW.” The gross tonnage refers to the total size of a vessel in Moorson tons. Every small vessel has a gross tonnage under 500, while ships have this figure or more. The law also stipulates that recreational vessels are those “destined for tourist, recreational and sports activities.”

From this perspective, the Cuban Government considers a water bike a recreational vessel. In Cuba, as a general rule recreational vessels belong to state institutions. Vessels and ships have been under the Government’s strict control because of their potential use as a means to emigrate unlawfully, as well as for other reasons.

Complaints about Cubans’ being unable to access these kinds of vessels at tourist facilities have surfaced on other occasions. Putting this into the Law, Cuba’s minister of Transport, Eduardo Davila, issued Resolution 32/22, which prohibits Cubans from importing ships, vessels, and naval artefacts.

The above arguments could “legally” justify the arrest of Alejandro Tamayo and the other men on the water bike. However, going beyond this apparent sense of legality, it isn’t the Cuban Government’s intention to compensate the organization that this water bike belongs to financially or to make some “thieves” pay for their crimes that is hidden in the arrest of these men on the water bike. The arrest hides the Cuban Government’s intention to dress up its retaliation to those who try to emigrate unlawfully by sea. The arrest of Alejandro Tamayo and his companions covers up the Government’s lack of willingness to push initiatives and reforms that offer Cubans any hope of not having to emigrate. Alejandro Tamayo’s arrest also proves that they have no desire to push a democratization process in the country.

Stealing a water bike to emigrate shouldn’t be considered a crime. Robbing a water bike to cross 90 miles of shark-infested saltwater is a clear sign of desperation. It’s like stealing food because you’re hungry. This is something many people believe shouldn’t be criminalized because it only happens when people are so poor that they need to steal. But this need in Cuba takes on other indications because especially in this case, anything stolen belongs to everyone, in theory, but we’re denied this. We are denied the enjoyment of these things and are denied the chance to buy them.

Stealing because of hunger can’t be solved with repression. Much less when this repression violates the basic rights that the repressors boast about and say exist.

Cuban propaganda and institutionalism have celebrated the push for what they called “penal reform” in the country. It seems some postulates of this reform have been ignored to arrest a 23-year-old water cyclist/rafter. This human rights violation proves that the Cuban Government isn’t taking action because of their imperative desire to uphold the Law, but because of their need to stop irregular migration by sea, at any price. An attitude they’ve always had, with their most macabre response coming in 2003, when they executed hijackers of a vessel by firing squad, just three days after their return.

In the videos of Alejandro’s arrest and in later statements, you can hear how the women insist that officers entering the house without a warrant to justify their presence. You can also see how these officers break into the place and take the young man away and arrest him, while his mother clings to one of his legs.

It has also come to light that Alejandro isn’t only facing charges for theft of the water bike, but also for resisting an arrest where legal formalities weren’t respected. Did Alejandro or his family have to consent to police officers coming into their home and arresting him by force, just because they were dressed in uniform and driving a patrol car? Can you resist in this situation?

The answer is relative. The evidence here suggests that the police lack even a basic understanding of penal reform, law, or safeguards. They don’t seem to have to pay for any of their violations. Impunity is their main defense.

Nevertheless, the new Penal Code in force since January 2022 establishes that the authorities and their assistants can enter and search a house to arrest somebody. But it clarifies that this can only happen when there is an “arrest warrant” against the person hiding in this property.

If an arrest warrant isn’t shown, if the reason for the arrest isn’t made known, a person is in their every legitimate right to resist arrest. They should be able to defend themselves from every illegitimate attack on their rights, including those that come from law enforcement officers. However, what ought to be is moving further and further away from reality.

So long as this situation continues, it isn’t madness to imagine that many other Alejandros will try and cross the Florida Strait on a water bike or any other unimaginable vessel.

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