The Last Detainees
The Last Rafters at Guantánamo and the Humanitarian Response
“The nightmare is over.”
– Axel, Cuban rafter
Thousands of Guantánamo rafters had been paroled to the United States via the humanitarian protocols announced in October 1994. In February 1995, the Cuban refugees who had been transferred to camps in Panama were returned to Guantánamo. By early May 1995, over 21,000 Cuban rafters remained interned at the Guantánamo camps, of which some 18,000 were men between the ages of 18 and 30.
On May 3, the Cuban refugees were surprised by the news they had all hoped for: all Cubans held at Guantánamo, except for those with criminal records, would be admitted to the United States. While this was good news for the rafters and South Florida’s Cuban exile community, the additional announcement that future rafters intercepted at sea would be returned to Cuba made it a bittersweet day.
Families with children were granted first passage. Cubans began leaving Guantánamo for the United States at a rate of up to 500 each week. By August, 14,000 single men and women were still confined in the Guantánamo camps. In order to decide fairly how the remaining Cuban rafters would leave the base, military officials held a lottery, picking camp names one at a time to determine the order in which the Cubans would depart.
The residents of Camp Delta left first, while the residents of Camp McCalla would be the last to go. The last group of Cuban refugees of the 1994 rafter crisis left Guantánamo on January 31, 1996, one year and five and a half months after the first Cuban rafters had arrived at the naval base.
Rafter journalist David Marín reported about the exit lottery from the base for the U.S.’s Radio Martí. (From the Guantánamo Base Collection. Gift of David Marín.)
“It is as if we have been rowing out there in the ocean for 17 months. Now is when we are finally getting off the raft to step on firm land.”
– Nelson, Cuban rafter age 40
The Humanitarian Response
Operation Angel was administered by the Ad Hoc Committee for Family Reunification, a nonprofit group comprised of individuals and institutions from South Florida to raise funds for education, health, and other services for Cuban and Haitian children arriving from Guantánamo. The group also provided relocation assistance and recruited sponsors for refugees held at the naval base.
The Guantánamo Refugee Assistance Project (GRASP) offered English classes and legal counseling to refugees held at Guantánamo. Upon their arrival in the U.S., Cuban rafters also benefited from GRASP services such as job placement assistance and computer education. The project received funding from the United Way of Miami-Dade County, the federal government, and private donations.
The Archdiocese of Miami established the Varela Centers in March 1995 to provide English classes for Cuban rafter children arriving in the U.S. Named after the 18th-century Cuban priest Father Félix Varela, the centers also strove to help the recent arrivals adjust to American life and culture. Local Catholic parishes hosted the centers: Immaculate Conception, St. Benedict, St. Brendan, St. John the Apostle, and St. Michael the Archangel. Classes were held throughout the summer of 1995 to prepare the children for the new experiences that awaited them in American schools.
“No matter how long I live, I will never forget what we went through. The two days at sea were more horrible than the nine months we spent in Guantánamo.”
– Alain, Cuban rafter age 17