Most everyone realizes our policy toward Cuba is not working and has to change. People on the island are suffering. Especially when compared to the prosperous life enjoyed by the Castros. I couldn't believe the luxurious Castro palace up on a Havana hill that I visited with Cardinal John O'Connor of New York before the prior papal visit.
My assignment for the New York Post was to fly the first picture of the Cardinal and Fidel back to Miami in my plane and wire it to the Post for the front page scoop. In those days there were no wire services in Cuba. The Cardinal said Mass in fluent Spanish at the Plaza de Catedral. He promised his overflowing congregation that life for the citizenry was about to improve.
Now, 25 years later, people living in what has to be the most beautiful island in the Caribbean are still risking their lives to escape from their prison surrounded by water.
Our president doesn't seem to understand.
The same week Mr. Obama was all smiles with Raul Castro, announcing diplomatic ties with the Communist island, eight desperate Cubans were intercepted by the Coast Guard off Palm Beach on a rickety boat. They had no food or water.
And while the eight were being processed at Miami's Krome Detention Center for likely “repatriation to Cuba,” Mr. Obama was busy telling reporters: “President Castro spoke to me today of the significant hardships the people of Cuba have had to endure over many decades.
“I can say with all sincerity that the essence of my policy is to make sure that the people of Cuba are able to prosper and live in freedom and security.”
Freedom and security? Prosper? In Cuba? What is the president thinking?
Is it America's fault that political prisoners are languishing in jail?
Mr. President, those eight Cubans have never had a free vote in their lives and their escape was not some rare occurrence. Last December the Coast Guard saw a flood of Cubans attempting the 90 mile trip to Freedom and managed to stop 481 of them in 37 different encounters.
According to a Coast Guard press release: “All the boats we encountered in December were unseaworthy homemade vessels that posed significant risk to the migrants attempting to make the perilous journey.”
These days the only escape stories receiving media coverage involve baseball stars. But even with them, we never hear the full story. They have family and friends left behind who could be in danger.
Here are a few escape details gleaned from Cuban athletes who've became household names. I covered Yankee All-Star pitcher Orlando Hernandez' escape for the New York Post. “El Duque” Hernandez was a patriotic Cuban, resigned to play in Cuba with no plans to leave the island.
But when his kid half-brother, Livan Hernandez, defected in Mexico and signed with the Florida Marlins, Orlando was suddenly in big trouble. The Castros were furious and Orlando was falsely accused of helping Livan escape. Orlando found himself dressed down by Raul Castro, who personally, banned him from playing baseball for life.
Hernandez was closely watched but after several attempts, he finally managed to escape on a rickety raft on Christmas Day 1997. He was blown miles off course and stranded on a deserted Bahamian island with no food. A week later he was picked up by the Coast Guard and within a year went on to win his first of three World Series rings for the Yankees.
Like many others, he never speaks of his escape attempts.
Los Angeles Dodger Cuban star Yassiel Puig almost didn't make it here alive. As is quite common in the Communist culture, someone ratted to police about his attempted escape.
In a night time chase right out of the movies, he avoided police dogs by diving into the ocean. As the dogs kept barking on shore, Cuban Coast Guard vessels with powerful searchlights were called in. Every time a search light approached Puig, he went under and held his breath for several minutes.
Police must have figured he'd drowned. Finally he managed to contact some shady smugglers. They made it to Cozumel, Mexico, where he was held hostage in a small room for three weeks until his Miami contacts came up with a large sum of money.
Repeated escape attempts by rookie of the year Jose Fernandez landed him in jail several times. “I never was given a change of clothes, they had no bathing facilities,” he said. “One jail had no roof.”
His father had escaped five years earlier and arranged for teenager Jose and his mother to board a smuggler's boat. It almost ended in tragedy when a large wave swept a woman in the stern overboard. Jose immediately dove in from his position on the bow only to discover the woman he was rescuing was his own mother.
There are countless escape stories and it appears Mr. Obama is blaming the embargo. He has to negotiate for some relief for the Cuban people.
With our president granting the Castros almost everything they ask for, surely he has to get something in return. The release of some political prisoners? Relinquish control of the press? Hold free elections?
Mr. Obama, demand that the Castros do . . . Something!
Malcolm Balfour worked as a producer for the CBS affiliate in Miami, was bureau chief of Reuters in Miami, and then became an article editor at the National Enquirer in the 1970s. He was a New York Post Florida correspondent for 27 years and worked as a freelance for numerous popular publications and television shows, from "Entertainment Tonight" and "Inside Edition" to "Hard Copy"and "Good Morning America." For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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