Cuban Plane Crash Survivors Allowed to Stay

Nine Cubans who survived when their plane crashed into waters off the Florida coast appear to be on the path to permanent residency in the United States.

Just hours after being ferried to U.S. soil for medical assessments, six of the survivors were escorted today to the Krome Detention Center in Miami, where they were interviewed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

As for the other three, Rodolfo Fuentes, 36, and his wife Liliana Ponzoa remain in a Key West hospital, according to relatives. Their 6-year-old son visited a local mall with his grandparents (see sidebar, below).

A 10th person was killed in the crash.

The survivors can expect to remain in the United States after their initial interview, the INS said. “Most likely what will happen — barring any criminal record — is that they will be paroled,” said agency spokeswoman Maria Cardona.

The 1966 U.S.-Cuban Adjustment Act allows Cubans who reach American soil the right to petition for asylum and testify at a hearing without being subjected to a “credible fear” test that political asylum seekers from countries other than Cuba must undergo under U.S. immigration regulations.

The Cuban government claims the Soviet-era plane was stolen when it took off Tuesday from a remote airfield in Cuba. Relatives of the crash survivors say they escaped to seek asylum in the United States. Cuban authorities had originally called the incident a hijacking, but the FBI concluded today the flight was not, eliminating a threat of criminal prosecution.

Now that the Cubans are on American soil, they can apply for residency within a year after they are paroled.

A Medical Decision

There had been a question mark over whether the Cubans would be allowed to stay. The case in many ways seemed reminiscent ot the tug of war over Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban castaway who became the focus of a custody battle between his relatives in Miami and his father in Cuba.

In some cases, those picked up at sea are returned to Cuba, but the plane crash survivors, who had been rescued by a U.S. cargo ship and later transferred to a Coast Guard cutter, were brought ashore in Florida for medical exams.

“We just want to be prudent, want to make sure they were getting everything they needed,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer Scott Carr.

But one foreign policy expert says that for the Coast Guard to go into international waters to retrieve the Cubans went against U.S. law and undermined immigration agreements with Cuba aimed at putting an end to the mass migrations of the 1980s.

“The whole thing is a farce,” said Wayne Smith, Cuba project director of the Center for International Policy. “The U.S. has not responsibility at all for them. They went down in international waters there is no reason for the U.S. to get involved.

“The Cubans will begin to say if you are not living up to your agreement, we will let anyone who wants to leave, leave,” Smith said.

Complicating Matters

The arrivals of these Cubans is expected to complicate talks, which started today in New York, on the status of immigration policies between the two countries.

Cuban authorities have demanded the return of the nine survivors and the return of the allegedly stolen plane.

“The absence of any punishment for acts of naval and air piracy, and for the hijacking of Cuban planes and boats sometimes by violence and murder, have constituted one of the greatest encouragements to illegal migration,” said the Communist Party newspaper, Granma.

“The unjustified non-return of a large number of intercepted people, the unpunished trafficking of migrants carried out from the coasts of the United States, create unfavorable conditions for the serene and constructive analysis of migration problems,” Granma said.

But State Department spokesman Richard Boucher emphasized the need to have these talks.

“It is dangerous to leave Cuba … and that is why we are having these migration talks,” Boucher said.

Wanting a Better Life

According to family members, the Cubans were attempting to defect to the United States.

“They want a better life, they don’t want to live in Cuba” said Sandra Pozoa, whose sister was a passenger on the doomed plane. “They all came willingly.”

In its first official version of the incident, Cuba’s government said Lenin Iglesias Hernandez, a pilot who worked for Cuba’s Department of Agriculture, had picked up a group of unscheduled passengers at a small landing strip in western Cuba before heading north toward the United States, and then radioed Havana that the aircraft was being hijacked to Florida.

The Coast Guard said the craft was heading west, toward Mexico, when it went down.

“The pilot got lost. They were flying over the sea, when you don’t see land after three hours, you get worried. The pilot realized he was running out of fuel so he stopped looking for land and started looking for a boat,” said the brother of Rodolfo Fuentes, the survivor who remains in the hospital. Rafael Fuentes, 30, of Miami, said he talked to his brother in the hospital Wednesday.

Hours after the crash, the Panamanian-registered cargo ship Chios Dream happened upon the nine people — and the body — in the wreckage in waters 180 miles southwest of Key West, Fla., and 30 miles northwest of Cuba, Coast Guard officials said.

In addition to Iglesias Hernandez, the plane was also carrying his wife Mercedes Martinez, 34, and their sons Erik, 13, and Danny, 7, as well as Liliana Ponzoa, 36; her son Andy Fuentes, 6; Jacquelin Viera, 28; Yudel Puig, 24; his brother Pavel Puig, 28; and Rodolfo Fuentes, according to family and friends who met the survivors at the hospital.

Yudel Puig was killed in the crash. The body was taken to the medical examiner for an autopsy today.’s Maria F. Durand, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.