July 14, 2007 | Commentary on Latin America
The Florida barrier island known as Little Gasparilla was the
place they found freedom as 27 Cuban refugees stepped safely on the
shore at approximately 5:30 am today. The group consisted of men,
four children and four or five women - one of them pregnant with a
three or four-year-old girl in tow. One was a doctor, one a
dentist, one a hairstylist - all were ecstatic. They said they came
to escape the dire political environment which kept them
They arrived by motor boat in the darkness of the early morning underneath a starry sky and were dropped on the shore of this island of about seven miles, which is not connected to the mainland. Many years ago through storms and shifting sand the island became connected to two smaller islands, Don Pedro (a Florida state park) and Knight Island, home of the Palm Island Resort. At the writing of this story, it was unclear who organized the effective flight.
The boaters appeared to believe they were on the mainland when they were let off on the south end of the island. They began walking as a unified group down the beach, covering over a mile, and at some point, turned toward the interior of the island. The group contineud until they ran into their first American, Lowell McElroy, who was headed home from his dock on the bay at approximatley 6:50 am. "One of them stepped forward and said something in Spanish. I told them they have to speak in English if they want to talk to me," McElroy said. "Another stepped forward and asked me in broken English to call the authorities. They were all very friendly."
Mr. McElroy called the local sheriff who arrived via boat in about an hour. Other officers sped down the beach via ATV from the state park to investigate the landing point. As the Cubans waited for the officials to arrive for processing, word of their presence spread through this island of mostly private vacation homes. Islanders came to Lowell's house with clothes, food and water. The joyful demeanor of the Cubans was infectious, with home owners and vacationers alike laughing and becoming instant friends. David Tagle, an 18-year-old graduate of Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia (soon to be a freshman at Brown University) is fluent in Spanish and became the interpreter for the group. An instant bond formed as the refugees chatted excitedly with David.
"I asked them why they came and it was clear they are here seeking freedom. Most of them seemed to have family in the United States and borrowed cell phones to call family members in Miami and Cape Coral," said Tagle. "'The political situation is not very good,'(s one of them told me."
By 9:12 am the last of them were escorted off the island via various government boats, including Lee County, Charlotte County, Coast Guard and Fish and Wildlife state boats. As they left the docks the islanders waved goodbye. One local offical who remained behind said, "Good luck."
Luck, it seems, is already on their side.