Tuesday, May 24, 2016

From Cuba to Miami by Providence and a Homemade Boat

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A Journey From Cuba to Florida

Follow 12 men to Miami from the mountains of central Cuba, as they make a five-day voyage using a handmade sailboat.
By AINARA TIEFENTHÄLER on Publish Date May 23, 2016. Photo by Scott McIntyre for The New York Times. Watch in Times Video »
MIAMI — 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 reimagined 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 had handed him when they arrived. “It’s already curing my parasites, something that, for me, hadn’t happened in 42 years.”
Since President 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as Cubans worry that protections, not available to other immigrants, offering them legal status are in danger of being rescinded.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 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 had 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, as the Coast Guard approached, 19 Cubans scrambled off their boat and swam to a lighthouse five miles off the Florida Keys; they eventually climbed down and will most 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.
Three Cuban refugees, from left, Yosvanys Chinea, Alierky Perez and Brayan Sanchez, looked out over Deering Channel on May 6 outside the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Miami. Credit Scott McIntyre for The New York Times
“We have had cases in the past of self-inflicted gunshots, and there is more noncompliance,” Petty Officer Mark Barney of the Coast Guard 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,” Mr. 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 D.J. 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 had left with.
Everyone contributed. Mr. 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, on April 17 at 6 a.m. 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 made six oars from tree branches.
Alierky Perez, left, and Raul Rodríguez tried on new shoes on May 4 at the Migration and Refugee Services offices in Miami run by the Conference of Catholic Bishops. Credit Scott McIntyre for The New York Times
Most important, they had three smartphones. Mr. 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.
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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,” Mr. 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 one another — especially at the man who got severely seasick the moment he boarded and scarcely moved during the five-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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Rodríguez said. “One walked across me while I slept.”
The next day they carried the boat back to shore, shimmied an American flag up the mast and sailed. The wind died, and they worried. But, Mr. Quintero said, “God was just trying to protect us.”
Onelio Rodríguez peering out the window at the rain this month at the Migration and Refugee Services offices in Miami. Credit Scott McIntyre for The New York Times
Luck had been on their side; they had not seen the Coast Guard or hit a storm, which can doom these crossings. That was when the dolphins greeted them, and their optimism swelled. “Vamos a coronar,” Mr. 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 American 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, Tex., where they will look for work. The center’s resettlement programs have a 70 to 90 percent success rate in finding jobs, said Juan F. 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,’” Mr. Lopez said. “We can’t afford people getting here and going straight on public assistance.”
Nearly two weeks after their arrival, the men sat on a sea wall in Miami’s Biscayne Bay, where they paid tribute at a shrine to La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre.
Mr. 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.”
Correction: May 23, 2016
Earlier versions of two picture captions with this article misidentified where Alierky Perez and Raul Rodríguez were trying on shoes and where Onelio Rodríguez was looking out a window. They were at Migration and Refugee Services of the Conference of Catholic Bishops, not at Catholic Charities Legal Services.

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