For years, Caymanians seafarers settled in the Isle of Pines, now renamed Isla de la Juventud, a large island off Cuba’s southern coast. Then, in 1958, Fidel Castro and took over power and Cuba became a communist country. It wasn’t long before living conditions got worse, and those Caymanians who had gone there, by now second and third generation settlers, started thinking about going back to the Cayman Islands. Their chance came first on 22 October 1968 with two historic flights from Havana direct to Cayman, and then again on August 4 1969. All of them have their stories; about how, against the odds, they made it on those flights, and about the loved-ones they left behind. But for each one of them one thing was the same: It was their flight to freedom, and they will never forget it.
After fifty years, it was time to get together again, at the Arts and Recreation Centre at Camana Bay. The MC for the evening was Mario Ebanks, who can’t remember too much about the flight, he said, because he was only four years old. As more and more old friends and familiar faces arrived, there were lots of hugs and kisses, live music, slide shows, plenty to eat, and lots and lots of memories.
“A group of us got together to organise the event because it is very significant for us,” said Elsie May Ebanks, who came over on the 1969 flight when she was just 17. “It is such a blessing to know that we have been spared by God to be here in these beautiful islands. My great grandmother, she talked to us a lot about the Cayman Islands. I came with my parents,” she said.
John Ebanks was just a teenager when he came to Cayman:
“We arrived on October 22 1968, when there were two flights,” he recalled. “32 people came in the morning, and 32 more in the afternoon. We had good Cayman connections and we were able to migrate legally, but it did take some effort. You had to do a lot of running around and there was a lot of hassle to keep you from leaving, and they would discourage you any way they could. So you had to have a very positive made-up mind, or you would probably just give up and stay there.
“We wanted to get out because of the change in the system. Everything was rationed and you had to abide by a little ration book. It just kept on getting worse and worse. It was a blessing to come here, just when the economy was starting to take off. My father had a good vision,” he said.
Alfred Powery who is now 84 came on the first freedom flight with his daughter, Elizabeth. “I wanted to get out of Cuba because I just could not tolerate Castro anymore. The living conditions were bad. They were worse than bad.”
Mr. Powery’s daughter, Elizabeth Bowen said: “I was eight years old when I got here and I’m so grateful to be here. Even though I was young, I saw a lot of stuff happening in Cuba, very inhumane things that I did not like. I saw political prisoners being abused. There was a prison about 10 miles from my paternal grandparents’ house, and they would bring the prisoners out there to work in the citrus groves. They would come with their food and throw it on a piece of zinc, and these poor men would have to come and grab this mush from off this zinc. There was a prominent figure that was behind all of this; the British representative in Cuba, she worked tirelessly for the Caymanian Cubans to get us out,” she said.