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From Cuba to Miami by Providence and a homemade boat

From Cuba to Miami by Providence and a homemade boat

They formed a motley group: several farmers, a carpenter, a tattoo
artist, a funeral home worker and a DJ who doubled as a distributor of
the paquetes — the black market recordings of American and Latin
American movies, television and news shows that are pirated off
satellite dishes.

LIZETTE ALVAREZ

The sign from God and the Virgin Mary came near the end of their
perilous, sun-scorched journey from Cuba to Florida: A dozen or so
dolphins swam up to their home-built, overloaded sailboat, dipping in
and out of the water, guiding them, they felt, toward a re-imagined future.

“It’s true we are blessed,” Rolando Quintero Ferrer, 27, one of the 12
passengers on the boat, said on his video recording of the voyage. “What
a beautiful thing. Nobody will get close to us now.”

The omen proved true. After five days of being stuffed in the boat like
cigarettes in a hard pack, including 24 hours on an uninhabited islet,
the men sailed right up to a dock in Tavernier in the Florida Keys. It
was 4:20 a.m. They scrambled out, pointed to the parking signs in
English, hollered and wept. They then took out a cellphone and, knowing
they would be welcomed, dialed 911, a trick gleaned from American
television.

“Look at this great water,” Yosvanys Chinea, a 42-year-old carpenter,
joked as he held up a bottle the police handed him when they arrived.
“It’s already curing my parasites, something that, for me, hadn’t
happened in 42 years.”

Since President Barack Obama renewed diplomatic ties with the island in
December 2014, Cuba has undergone significant change. Airplane travel
between Miami and Havana is booming. Cubans are expanding private
microbusinesses with the help of stateside relatives. One thing that has
not changed, however, is the desperation of Cubans to set sail in
rickety boats for the United States – a sign that fears are increasing,
not decreasing, as Cubans worry that protections, not available to other
immigrants, offering them legal status are in danger of being rescinded.

Since Oct. 1, more than 3,500 Cubans have either made it to the shores
of the United States, allowing them to stay here legally, or have been
picked up at sea by the Coast Guard and sent home. The numbers arriving
this year may reach numbers not seen since the balsero exodus of the 1990s.

They come for two reasons. Life in Cuba remains incalculably difficult,
especially for those outside the hustle and bustle of Havana. Freedom of
expression remains severely limited, and wages can be as low as $16 to
$22 a month.

They are also motivated by panic. They believe that Congress is ready to
repeal the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which gives Cubans a unique
privilege – automatic residency one year and a day after their arrival
in the country. Attempts at a repeal have so far been unsuccessful, but
anti-immigrant sentiment in Washington makes it a possibility,
especially because Cubans are now viewed here as economic, rather than
political, migrants.

Coast Guard officials said Cubans have become more aggressive in trying
to evade capture. They at times jump in the sea or refuse to board the
Coast Guard cutters. On Friday, 19 Cubans scrambled off their boat as
the Coast Guard approached and swam to a lighthouse five miles off the
Florida Keys; they eventually climbed down and will likely be taken
right back to Cuba. Two months ago, six Cubans on a boat had gunshot
wounds and said they had been attacked in the Florida Straits. But all
the bullets managed to miss major organs, prompting skepticism.

“We have had cases in the past of self-inflicted gunshots, and there is
more noncompliance,” Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney said. “Often
they continue going and refuse to let us get them off the boats. It is a
safety issue. There are cases all the time where people are found in the
water, alive, dead, migrants gone missing.”

This group of Cubans said they, too, had a plan to dodge the
authorities. “We would all jump in the water and try to swim away,”
Quintero said.

But first they had to get off the island, no small task for a group of
Cubans from Florencia, a hilly, tobacco-producing area close to the
center of the island. The group formed slowly, in an underground game of
who-wants-out and who-can-you-trust. It is illegal and dangerous to
leave Cuba by boat, so many kept their plans hidden even from relatives,
a reflection of the secrecy surrounding these journeys, which often take
months or years to organize and require money, ingenuity and courage.

They formed a motley group: several farmers, a carpenter, a tattoo
artist, a funeral home worker and a DJ who doubled as a distributor of
the paquetes — the black market recordings of American and Latin
American movies, television and news shows that are pirated off
satellite dishes.

Asael Veloso, a 34-year-old farmer, tried to leave three years ago. He
sold everything and hitched a ride with another bunch of so-called
balseros. But their raft was captured eight hours from Cuba, and he
returned home with less than he left with.

Everyone contributed. Chinea, the carpenter, and Edel Sánchez spent 20
days building the sailboat in a tobacco-drying house from scraps of
wood. The small boat was designed for six people and ended up sailing
with 12. A couple helped sail and navigate. A few had money or muscle
power. Some had connections.

Getting the sailboat to the shore was tricky. The men managed to find a
tractor to pull the boat, camouflaged by palm fronds, to the coast when
the weather looked good. But the tractor could not haul the boat up a
steep hill so, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, the
men had to find a second tractor to push it.

They finally arrived on the shore, at Punta de Judas, at 6 a.m. April
17. On board, they had 31 gallons of water, juice, powdered milk, cans
of sweetened condensed milk and piles of crackers and nuts. They wore
floppy hats and long sleeves, and used blankets to cover themselves from
the sun. They had crafted six oars from tree branches. Most important,
they had three smartphones. Quintero had jury-rigged a computer battery
to charge the phones during the journey. This meant the men had
something invaluable – GPS to guide them to Florida.

Inside the sailboat, they layered tightly. Although most Cubans disdain
religion, the men did not hesitate to ask Dios for his blessings. “I
made promises to everyone: to God to la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre,”
Quintero said, referring to the patron saint of balseros.

They would need them. For two terrifying days, they could not clear
Cuban waters.

“We left with the current and the wind against us,” said Onelio
Rodríguez, a baby-faced 26-year-old farmer. “But God is beautiful.”

They slept, smoked cigarettes, played Latin music, bantered about
girlfriends and children, poked fun at each other – especially at the
man who got severely seasick the moment he boarded and scarcely moved
during the six-day journey – and ate nuts and crackers. They also argued
– over who would row, who could sleep at night, who was hogging space.

“We laughed at our own misery, which is how we survive in Cuba,” said
Sánchez, 43, a farmer. On the boat, he joked that he already knew what
his first American wish would be. He never again wanted to see
“crackers, nuts or Cuba.”

Soon after clearing Cuba, they landed on rocky Cayo Anguilla, an
uninhabited Bahamian islet, to get some rest. They hid their boat in the
brush and quickly discovered they had company. Another group of Cubans
was there, too, and in worse shape, so the men shared their food and
water, and even caught a fish they cooked in seawater. They had a
sleepless night. The islet was covered in opossum-size rats.

“All night we had to fight them off,” Rodríguez said. “One walked across
me while I slept.”

The next day they carried the boat back to shore, shimmied a U.S. flag
up the mast and sailed. The wind died and they worried. But, Quintero
said, “God was just trying to protect us.”

Luck had been on their side; they had not seen the Coast Guard or hit a
storm, which can doom these crossings. That is when the dolphins greeted
them, and their optimism swelled. “Vamos a coronar,” Veloso said,
describing their arrival and the cold beer that awaited them.

The GPS flashed that they were 18 miles from the Florida Keys. The men
started to row in the darkness. Finally, they spotted a sea wall along a
beach in Tavernier and spied a dock. They sailed to it and pulled out
the phone.

Police officers showed up and the Cubans took photos with them,
unfurling their U.S. flag.

The next morning they were whisked to the Migration and Refugee Services
offices run by the Conference of Catholic Bishops. The center fills out
paperwork for arriving Cubans and, for those without relatives, feeds
and puts them up in motels until they can be relocated to other states.
Cuban migrants and refugees have been resettled around the country for
decades so no one area bears the economic burden of helping them start
new lives.

The Quality Inn in Doral, west of Miami, felt close to heaven for the
men: air-conditioning, television with dozens of channels, more eggs and
meat than they had seen in forever.

Half of the group would soon be destined for Las Vegas, the other half
for Austin, Texas, where they will look for work. The center’s
resettlement programs have a 70 percent to 90 percent success rate in
finding jobs, said Juan Lopez, an associate director for the refugee
services group.

“This is a country of laws but we say ‘let’s look at this from the
humane standpoint,’” Lopez said. “We can’t afford people getting here
and going straight on public assistance.”

Nearly two weeks after their arrival, the men sat silently on a sea wall
in Miami’s Biscayne Bay, where they paid tribute at a shrine to La
Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre.

Chinea, the carpenter, thought about his wife and two sons back in
Florencia. His eyes welling up, he gave thanks. Now, he said, he could
help them. “We are so lucky to have arrived,” he said. “I have more here
in eight days than I ever had in my 42 years in Cuba.”

His five years of waiting and planning had paid off. “What you have here
is a nest of hope,” he said. “What you have there is a nest of scorpions.”

Source: From Cuba to Miami by Providence and a homemade boat | In Cuba
Today – www.incubatoday.com/news/article79405357.html

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