14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 14 April 2017 — Juana Chiroles will never forget December 26, 2015. It was the last day she saw her son and her two nephews. As night fell the young men told her they were going to kill some pigs and had a rope and several implements. They never returned home.
Some days later she heard the news from people in the town: her relatives were among the 13 young people who left on a raft that night for the United States. Since then, the mothers of the small town of Modesto Serrano with 1,300 inhabitants in Artemisa province, “don’t sleep, don’t eat,” thinking about the fate of their family members.
The official silence and the absence of news suggests the worst, but Juana maintains the hope that her son is alive and will return home.
I’m a guajira with dirt on my feet and a little rough. I’ve never seen the internet and I don’t know anything about computers,” she says modestly on a static-filled call from a cellphone.
The woman, 54, explains that “you have to walk around to find cell coverage.”
Since January the US Coast Guard has only intercepted about 100 Cubans who were trying to cross the Florida Straits
Since the disappearance of her son, Alien Quintana Chiroles, 32, and her two nephews, Julián and Ronaldo Chiroles, 26 and 36 years respectively, they have done their best to find out about any rafters intercepted by the US Coast Guard United States, she says.
However, they have not been successful. Their relatives sailed when the well-known wet foot/dry foot policy was in place that allowed Cubans who touched American territory to be accepted as refugees.
President Barack Obama ended this policy last January, during his last days in office, and since then the US Coast Guard has only intercepted about 100 Cubans who were trying to cross the Florida Straits. A figure very far from the almost 10,000 who tried to escape the island by sea in 2016.
“A week after the people left, we started to hear they had arrived in Florida. Since then we learned it was a lie,” she says sadly.
Besides the Juana Chiroles’s son, those on the precarious boat included Ronaldo Chiroles Évora, 26; Orlando Santos Lazo, 45; Alberto Rodriguez Beltrán, 27; Yariel Alzola Cid, 27; Leandro Évora Salazar, 41; Ailetis Llanes Padrón, 33; Eduardo Cano González, 40; Wilson González Piloto, 26; Yordan Ramos Hernández, 27; Dariel Mesa Arteaga and Luis Arrastria.
“A month before they left, a similar boat with people from the same town arrived in Miami. That was what twisted their heads and they went away hoping that they would also experience the same fate,” says Juana.
The US Coast Guard, for its part, said in a letter addressed to this newspaper that they also have no records on these rafters
A spokesman for the US Customs and Border Protection Office told 14ymedio that they do not have any information in their records that matches the names of the disappeared.
The US Coast Guard, for its part, said in a letter addressed to this newspaper that they also have no records of these rafters.
“What the families of the rafters experience is very dramatic. We have hundreds of reports of unresolved disappearances,” explains Ramón Saúl Sánchez, president of the Democracy Movement, an organization of the Cuban exile that assists its compatriots.
“We have asked the United States government to establish a protocol to identify the bodies. So far, it does not exist and the bodies remain unidentified in the morgues until they are buried in mass graves,” says Sanchez.
Sanchez recognizes that after the end of the wet foot/dry foot policy the number of cases in which his organization helps has decreased substantially. However, he is concerned that what causes Cubans to try to escape from their country remains.
“President Obama (by ending the asylum policy for undocumented arrivals) created the figure of the undocumented Cuban rafter, who won’t show his face because he is afraid of being deported. We know that there is a dictatorship in Cuba, that is why Cubans escape and it has not been solved,” he says.
Between 2015 and 2016 there was a significant increase in the number of rafters
Last summer half of the crew of a raft handmade on the island disappeared in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and only the mummified remains of one of the rafters was found. The body carried the identity cards of two brothers who were among the crew of the boat.
Between 2015 and 2016 there was a significant increase in the number of rafters. “In the village of La Máquina, [a nearby area], several boats left until the police took action on the matter,” says Juana.
Her son tried four times to reach the United States. In one of his attempts he was picked up by a ship that delivered him back to the Cuban authorities. After paying a fine of 3,000 Cuban pesos, he continued to plan his next trip.
Juana studied engineering with a specialization in sugar chemistry, but was unable to exercise her profession following the collapse of the island’s sugar industry. She lives with her husband and cares for her younger brother, Felipe, affected by Down syndrome.
“I have a daughter and a seven-year-old granddaughter, my son Alien’s daughter. Her name is Alice Flor Quintana. Every day I tell her about her dad and I show her his photo so she will not forget him,” she says.
Convinced that “the love of mother can do anything,” Juana called on the Cuban authorities confirm that they had not been arrested for illegal exit from the country
Convinced that “the love of mother can do anything,” Juana called on the Cuban authorities to confirm that the rafters had not been arrested for illegal exit from the country. They told her no and they also did not know of any shipwreck in the days after the disappearance of her relatives.
“My hope is that at least they are at the Guantanamo Naval Base,” says the mother, knowing that rafters picked up by the US Coast Guard are often taken there. But 14ymedio has been able to corroborate that they are not there.
“My son is very beautiful and a great person, he is always happy, please, if anyone has seen him or knows where he is, help me find him,” she says, her voice breaking.
“The agony is immense. It has been a year since he left, but the pain is like the first day he left,” she concluded.