Unlike other Cuban refugees being forced to leave Panama this week, the 63 boat people who boarded one flight on Friday were all smiles.
They were headed for Miami, and not U.S.-run detention camps in the homeland they fled.
“I’m free!” a white-haired man shouted from the door of the plane, shaking his fists at the sky. “Long live a free Cuba!”
A grinning man with one leg hobbled up the steps to the plane on crutches. A teenage girl with long, dark hair peeked out behind the huge white teddy bear she carried aboard.
On Wednesday, the U.S. military started clearing out the detention camps in Panama where 8,500 refugees have lived since fall.
The overwhelming majority are headed for the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. The 63 who flew to Miami on Friday were teenagers, disabled, sick or elderly who qualified to go to the United States because someone promised to support them there.
Their departure was the first joyful scene this week at Howard Air Force Base, where 1,500 Cubans have boarded charter jets and military aircraft for the two-hour trip to Guantanamo, on Cuba’s eastern tip.
The group headed for the Homestead air base in South Florida smiled and cheered. Some even hugged a few of the camouflage uniformed American soldiers before boarding the Boeing 727 jet.