MIAMI -- They crossed the Florida Straits six months ago and, in a desperate act, sought refuge on the American Shoal Lighthouse off the Florida Keys to avoid being repatriated to Cuba.
Later, a bottle with a handwritten message inside that was thrown overboard and plucked out of the sea by a fisherman, drew international attention to the rafters' plight aboard the Coast Guard cutter that was ferrying them. After demonstrating "credible fears of persecution" if they were repatriated, the Cuban migrants were transported to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay.
Today, some of those "lighthouse rafters" still on the base say they feel pressured by authorities to return to their homeland and are overwhelmed by the lack of work available to them.
"We want to work, we are refugees, not prisoners," said one of the 17 rafters awaiting their fate.
Cubans intercepted at sea are generally returned to the island while those who make it to U.S. soil are allowed to stay under the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy. Although a federal judge ruled that the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy did not extend to the American Shoal Lighthouse 6.5 nautical miles off Sugarloaf Key, the Cuban rafters were later given safe haven at the base while their cases remain under evaluation.
"We are very grateful for all the help they have given us, but we do not understand why we are not allowed to talk to lawyers or work," the Cuban migrant said.
Initially, a total of 20 migrants were transported to the base, but three of them returned to Cuban soil -- two of them returned voluntarily and a third was repatriated after authorities discovered that he once worked for the government's Ministry of the Interior.
"We are forbidden to speak to the press about our situation," said the rafter, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by the authorities at the base.
Of the group of 17 men who remain at Guantanamo Bay, 10 are unemployed, said a second Cuban rafter who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
"We can call our family once a week, but nobody tells us how much longer we have to be here," he said. "Some of us work in manual jobs and get paid $4.97 an hour."
According to the migrant, a high-ranking official at the base, Commander Dennis Mojica, has told them twice that anyone who does not accept their current situation "has the door open to return to Cuba," a phrase which they consider a pressure tactic to get them to return to the island.
"People have come to interview us but no one tells us what our legal situation is, and when we ask to work, they tell us that there is no work. It is very difficult to sit idly all day. The only thing we ask is that they let us earn a living," he said.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State told el Nuevo Herald that, "All protected migrants residing at the U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay (NSGB) are there voluntarily; they are free to return to their home countries at any time, but the United States does not pressure them to do so."
The spokesperson also said that migrants are regularly visited by officials who monitor their situation and the most recent visit happened in December.
"The migrants are allowed to apply for jobs on the base and can participate in recreational and social activities," the spokesperson said. "They also have access to educational opportunities and means of communication with friends and family in their home countries and elsewhere. It is important to note that there are a limited number of employment opportunities at NSGB."
Apart from the lack of work, the Cuban migrants said U.S. personnel on the base have provided excellent care and they receive generous financial aid and educational opportunities.
"They take us out on excursions and we have no complaints about the sanitary conditions. We have health coverage and receive $107 in financial aid on Sundays to buy our food. In addition, we are given 30 minutes on the phone to talk with our family," the migrant said.
Ramon Saul Sanchez, leader of the Democracy Movement, which that filed legal appeals for the rafters, said: "We lost our first lawsuit for the lighthouse to be considered a U.S. territory and the rafters as dry feet. At the moment, we are in the process of appeals."
According to the activist, the group of lawyers working on the pro bono case, is still hopeful that the lighthouse will be declared a U.S. territory, thereby giving the migrants the ability to enter the United States under the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy.
Otherwise, the State Department must find a third country to take in the migrants, a process that can sometimes be long and complex.