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Cubans sailing vintage car caught off Florida

A group of Cubans trying to flee to the United States in a vintage car converted into a boat were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard near Florida, exiles said on Wednesday.
A group of Cubans sails toward the Florida Straits on a modified 1959 Buick Tuesday.CBS4 via AP
/ Source: Reuters

A group of Cubans who tried to sail to the United States in a 1959 Buick car fashioned into a boat were intercepted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard, relatives in Cuba and Cuban exiles said on Wednesday.

For four of the 11 people on board, it was not the first thwarted attempt to leave the communist island in a bizarrely converted vintage vehicle.

They had already tried last July to reach Florida in a vessel made from a 1951 Chevy truck, only to be picked up by the Coast Guard and sent home.

The Coast Guard intercepted the bright green Buick-boat on Tuesday during its journey over the 90-mile stretch between Cuba and Florida, exile groups said.

In Miami, the U.S. Coast Guard would not discuss the incident, saying agency policy was not to comment on migrant interdiction cases while they were in process.

There was no word on whether the group had been taken aboard a Coast Guard vessel or had tried to sail on once they were spotted by the Coast Guard. If picked up, they would likely be sent home, unless they could make a case for political asylum.

In Cuba, relatives of the six adults and five children — aged between 4 and 15 — on the Buick appealed to U.S. authorities not to send them home.

Usually, Cubans caught at sea are repatriated, unless they can prove they have grounds for political asylum. Washington’s policy is to monitor repatriated migrants to make sure they are not punished for having tried to leave.

Those Cuban migrants who manage to make it to U.S. shore are generally allowed to stay.

Relatives said the group was led by Luis Grass, who was one of the 12 Cubans repatriated last July after the truck crossing attempt failed, and was seeking a visa for the United States as a political refugee.

Seaworthy Buick
Their vessel, seen on images broadcast by Miami television stations, looked like one of the many stately 1950s American cars that still cruise the streets of Havana and other Cuba cities — except that it was surrounded by ocean.

The group drove into the sea from a beach 20 miles east of Havana after dark on Monday.

“They sealed the doors and added a double bottom, steel plates for a bow and a propeller,” said Eduardo Perez, cousin of Luis Grass, at his home in the Havana suburb of Diezmero.

He said it cost $4,000 to make the Buick, powered by its original V8 engine, seaworthy and pay for cellular phones used to help the look-out for police on the drive to the beach.

Grass, 35, his wife, Isora, and 4-year-old son, and Marcial Basalta, were aboard last July’s attempt in a truck made seaworthy with 55-gallon drums strapped to the sides.

This time Basalta took his wife and two children with him in the Buick owned by a friend called Rafael, who left with his wife and their two sons.

The relatives in Havana called on U.S. authorities not to repatriate the occupants of the Buick, saying they would be punished by the Cuban government for trying a second time.

“The United States should have a little bit of compassion and value the determination of these people,” Perez said. “They are clean people. All they want to do is live and work.”

“On ingenuity alone, they should be allowed to stay,” said Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, a leading exile group.

Many in Miami’s large exile population were outraged last July when U.S. authorities repatriated the 12 occupants of the truck and sank the vessel, saying it was not seaworthy and if it were preserved might encourage copycat efforts.