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The getaway car

International | FLORIDA: Three of the Cubans who tried to sail a Buick to America may still make it; and if not, they may become a campaign issue

Issue: "Iraq: The WMD debate," Feb. 21, 2004

THE STREETS OF HAVANA HAVE long been known for the vintage American cars still chugging gamely along more than 50 years after they rolled off the assembly line. Now, the waters off the coast of Florida may become known for the same thing.

On Feb. 10, the U.S. Coast Guard returned eight Cubans to their homeland a week after they were discovered at sea-in a 1959 Buick. Three others, all members of the same family, won a reprieve of sorts on Feb. 11 when the Department of Homeland Security ruled that they should be sent to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay pending a detailed review of their case.

TV news footage of the desperate escape attempt electrified Miami's politically powerful Cuban community for days, putting pressure on the Bush administration to waive a Clinton-era policy and grant asylum to the automotive emigrants. The so-called wet-foot/dry-foot rule stipulates that any Cuban reaching American soil can stay, while those caught at sea are returned home.

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But many thought the 11 refugees in the Buick deserved a special status-call it the lead-foot exception, perhaps. "They have earned their way into this country, just by what they have managed to do," Kiriat López, a Florida resident whose cousin was in the car, told The Miami Herald. "What more do they have to do to show how desperate they are?"

The getaway car-a seafoam green classic with '50s tailfins and a specially modified, boat-like prow-sailed within 10 miles of Marathon Key before being intercepted by the Coast Guard. According to proud relatives back in Cuba, the would-be emigrants welded the car shut to make it watertight and attached propellers to the drive shaft. The car still had its tires as well, presumably because the plan was to drive to the home of Mr. Lopez after making landfall in America.

Some of the Buick sailors were old hands at this novel form of escape. Luis Grass Rodriguez, his wife, Isora, and their friend Marcial Basanta Lopez were three of the 12 Cubans turned back last July when the Coast Guard found them adrift in a 1951 Chevy pickup truck.

After his escape attempt last summer, Mr. Grass applied for a visa through the American diplomatic section in Havana. Rather than wait for an answer, he took his wife and 4-year-old son aboard the ill-fated Buick with eight of his countrymen. Still, that visa application won him special treatment from the Americans. Although repatriation for the other eight was all but automatic, the Grass family won a temporary restraining order while a federal judge reviewed the status of their earlier visa request.

In the end, U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno ruled against the family in a six-page decision. "It is difficult to imagine a more creative way to escape the dictatorial regime that is Cuba," the judge wrote. Nevertheless, he said, federal judges have no "authority to admit aliens, even imaginative, hardworking, brave individuals."

But after more than a week of increasing political pressure, the Bush administration found a way to appease a key constituency in a must-win state. Citing the family's credible fear of persecution by the Castro regime, the Department of Homeland Security decided to settle the family in Guantanamo while it makes a more detailed examination of their visa application. The Grasses might yet make it to the States, to a third country-or right back to Cuba.

Exile groups in South Florida vow to keep up pressure on the White House. If the Grass family is still in limbo as the November election approaches, Mr. Bush could feel the wrath of the already disenchanted Cuban-American community. That might send his reelection campaign in the same direction as the '59 Buick: Due to safety concerns for passing ships, the Coast Guard sank the vehicle.

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