Cuba, Bahamas: unhappy neighbors

The Cuban bombing and sinking of a Bahamian patrol boat as it towed two seized Cuban fishing boats is a major incident that could have far-reaching repercussions.

The immediate suspicion is that the current Cuban refugee outflow, now numbering 36,000, has made the Cubans quite nervous and "frantic," as a State Department official termed it.

But the weekend incident is also viewed as a direct outgrowth of longstanding Bahamian protest over Cubans fishing in Bahamian territorial waters.

Although they share the same waters, the Bahamas and Cuba have never been particularly happy neighbors.

Periodically over the past two decades, incidents -- usually involving ships straying off course or fishing in Bahamian territorial waters -- have led to angry words between the two island nations. But never has there been so blatant a confrontation as the weekend sinking of the Bahamian patrol vessel by Cuban MIGs.

In an effort to play down the event, Cuba has sent regrets to the Bahamian government. It earlier said, however, that the boat had been attacked because it appeared to be a "pirate ship" of unknown origin.

The Bahamians are angry. Some have even talked of war against Cuba, though this is unlikely to follow. Bahamians say the affair involves not only the sinking of its ship by Cuban jets, but also mock strafing by jets on Ragged Island as the Bahamian crewmen and their Cuban captives waited to be picked up by Bahamian aircraft. At least four Bahamians died and others were injured. Bahamians charge that the Cuban vessels were also fishing illegally in Bahamian territorial waters.

The government in Nassau plans to protest the episode at the United Nations, but so far it has not asked for a formal session of the UN Security Council.

War is an unlikely prospect in part because the Bahamas does not have much of an army. What seems more likely is an all-out effort to keep Cuban fishing boats out of Bahamian waters. Frequently over the years, Cubans, with their expanding fishing interests, have used the fish-rich Bahamian waters for crab, grouper, and red snapper catches. This has nettled Bahamians, who have on at least six occasions protested Cuban fishing.

The Bahamas does not have diplomatic relations with Cuba. But the interplay between the Bahamas island chain and Cuba is a long one. In British colonial days, which ended with independence for the Bahamas in 1973, Cubans frequently used neighboring islands as an exile haven. The pattern has continued in the seven years since independence.

But the migration has gone the other way also. In the 1930s and '40s, hundreds of Bahamians went to Cuba in search of better jobs and settled there. After Fidel Castro came to power, many of them sought to leave, but often were unable to do so.

It is estimated that as many as 5,000 out of the 175,000 Bahamians are of Cuban ancestry, while there are probably 10,000 Bahamians in Cuba as a result of that earlier migration.

Then, too, there were frequent occasions in the late 1950s before Dr. Castro came to power when his supporters used some of the Bahamian islands as refueling stops before launching offensives against the government of Fulgencio Batista. It was hard then for the British, as it is today for the Bahamian government, to patrol all the Bahamian islands, strung out as they are.

The Bahamas is made up of 700 islands and 2,000 cays stretching in a 750-mile arc in the Atlantic to the north and east of Cuba. Some of the islands are less than 50 miles from Cuba and it is easy for small craft to be blown off course into either the Bahamas chain or into Cuban coastal waters.

Moreover, compounding the geopolitics of the area, there are the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British crown colony, stretching off to the southeast of the Bahamas. Unlike the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos government permits Cuban boats to work the waters close to their shoreline. Cuban fishing vessels frequently refuel at Georgetown, the Turks and Caicos capital on Grand Turk Island.

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