HAVANA – The Cuban coast guard shot at three suspected migrant smugglers from the United States who refused orders to halt their boat as it neared the island, killing one, official media reported Thursday.
The Communist Party daily Granma said the confrontation occurred Wednesday near Cuba's southern coast in the western province of Pinar del Rio.
The coast guard official in charge ordered officers to open fire after the three-man crew aboard the 40-foot boat failed to stop and instead launched "violent sudden attacks" on the coast guard vessel, damaging the craft, the report said.
It said that two men aboard the U.S.-based boat were wounded by gunfire and taken to a hospital, where one died, the report said.
Cuban authorities said the identity of the dead man was not immediately known because he did not have any documents and the other two men were not cooperating.
The other two men carried U.S. passports identifying them as Rafael Mesa Farinas and Rosendo Salgado Castro. It was unclear which of those two was wounded or how seriously.
A spokesman for the U.S. Interests Section in Havana said American authorities were investigating the incident.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington that it would be "deeply disturbing" if the dead man turned out to be an American.
The shooting death of a suspected migrant smuggler by Cuban authorities was unusual. Most violence during migration attempts has occurred in confrontations between Cuban authorities and would-be migrants who hijacked boats or planes.
Cuban authorities blamed the confrontation on U.S. migration policies that they say encourage its citizens to undertake risky journeys to get to the United States.
Ninoska Perez Castellon, spokeswoman for the Miami-based Cuban Liberty Council, blamed the communist government, accusing it of tolerating illegal migrant smuggling.
"The Cuban government has the authority to let them go in and out," she said. "For anybody to believe that all those people are coming in and out without the government getting a cut is ridiculous."
But she also blamed the smugglers, saying they often bring 30 or 40 people on a boat made for six, charging them around $10,000 each.
"That's why you see these terrible accidents," she said. "In the exile community, people are desperate to bring in their family here."
Ramon Saul Sanchez, head of the Miami-Based Democracy Movement, said "a human trafficking mafia" is making money off Cubans' pain.
Sanchez, who went on a hunger strike earlier this year to protest the treatment of Cuban migrants picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard, has also called for stronger laws against human traffickers and investigations into the role of Cuban officials in the trade.
"I'm not saying the Cuban government is officially involved but that some people in the government may be involved," he said.
Sanchez added that the U.S. immigration policy is not what is causing the human trafficking but what he termed "the dictatorial regime in Cuba."
The passports of two suspected smugglers involved in Wednesday's confrontation showed they recently visited the Mexican southeastern state of Quintana Roo, where Cuban authorities believe they had planned to take a boatload of illegal migrants, who would then cross to the U.S. by land.
Cuban authorities later temporarily took into custody 39 people they believe had been scheduled to leave the island on the speedboat: 20 men, 12 women and seven children.
After giving statements to authorities, most were later sent home. Several, however, remained in custody.
The speedboat was registered to an American man of Cuban origin named John Roberto, who is nicknamed "Tiburon Azul," or "Blue Shark," the report said. The boat has traveled to Cuba numerous times on migrant smuggling trips in the past, many of them through Mexico, the report said.
"The events ... confirm the irresponsible, criminal and aggressive character of United States policy toward Cuba, especially the deliberate use of the theme of migration against the revolution," Granma said in the front page report.
It went on to criticize as "cynical" the Cuban Adjustment Act, a 1966 law that grants U.S. residency to most Cubans one year after reaching American soil. That privilege does not apply to apply to immigrants from most other nations.
Under current American policy, most would-be Cuban migrants the U.S. Coast Guard picks up at sea are returned to the island, but most who reach American soil are allowed to stay.
Mexico is among several routes migrant smugglers use to get Cuban migrants into the United States, and Quintana Roo, home to the Caribbean resorts of Cancun, Cozumel and Isla Mujeres, has become an increasingly popular transshipment point.
From there, the migrants travel to the U.S. border with Mexico, where they identify themselves as Cubans to American officials and are often allowed to stay.