Destination USA At Any Price / Iván García

The US Coast Guard confirms that one of every three rafters who attempts to cross the shark-infested Florida Straits dies in the attempt.

Official figures don’t exist. But in 50 years, as many as 10,000 Cubans could have disappeared in the turbulent tropical waters. Clandestine emigration is a deadly game of Russian Roulette. There is a 33% chance of being a snack for the dogfish or of perishing in bad weather.

This way, the lack of a future and despair manage to impose themselves. And one night some Cubans decide to throw themselves at the sea in a precarious wooden raft, in pursuit of the American dream. Being a Cuban citizen is an invitation to play with your life. Starting in 1966, the US Government conceded residence to those Cubans who demanded asylum from US soil. But since the migratory agreements of 1994, that changed.

Present US law rewards risk and encourages illegalities. With its “wet foot, dry foot” policy, they turn the daring passage into a more complicated and longer trip. Before ’94, if you were caught by the Coast Guard, you had a right to demand asylum.

Now they’ll return you to Cuba, with the promise of the local authorities that they won’t send you to prison, which has given a new tone to the risky adventure. When Cubans decide to throw themselves at the sea, now they consult experts in seamanship, with the intent of deceiving the Coast Guards of both nations.

Ramón, 34, could have a doctorate in illegal exits. He’s tried it twelve times. And always he has been captured by the Coast Guard off of Florida. In a short time, he returns to try again. It’s his habitual routine. He believes that liberty has its price.

Since 1994, more than 320,000 people have emigrated from Cuba in a legal and orderly manner. But those who don’t meet the requirements to travel to the United States look for other options.

It’s a drama. Illegal exits have turned into a risky business. Humberto left Cuba in 2001. His family, living in New Jersey, had real estate investments and wanted their nephew — an audacious university student — to participate in their enterprise. One of Humberto’s uncles called some guys in Miami. A week later, he met with them and agreed on a reasonable price: 8,000 dollars to bring him safe and sound to American territory.

Visiting in Havana, Humberto tells his story. “They called me one afternoon and told me that I should get in contact with an individual who lived in the Miramar district. After agreeing to terms and the date, in five days they came to get me in a bus, apparently a tourism bus, where around 35 people went.

They left them on an islet at the north of the province of Villa Clara. The trip was quick and without mishaps, in a “cigarette boat” with powerful engines. Today Humberto is a successful man in the United States. He traveled with luck.

The opposite happened to Marisela. Her family in Miami paid 42,000 dollars to take her together with her husband, a brother, and three children under the age of 12. They had a fatal accident on the high seas and one of the children lost his life. They were rescued by the gringo Coast Guard and returned to Havana. Even still, Marisela maintains her wish to go. By any means. And at any price.

In its policy to detain the waves of rafters, the Cuban authorities have used violent and reprehensible methods. On July 13, 1994, military forces assaulted and sank the tugboat 13 de Marzo, which with 72 people aboard was attempting a clandestine exit. The scorecard was tragic: 41 deaths, among them eleven minors.

If the Cuban Adjustment Act is repealed, it could reduce the number of deaths at sea. In the prisons of the island there are more than 100 Cuban-Americans dedicated to the business of illegal exits.

In this autumn of 2010, throwing oneself at the sea continues to be the ace of triumph of desperate Cubans. They pay with whatever they have on hand. They’ll sell their house or their car, if they have one. They will play it all on one card.

Not a few are defrauded by bands of scoundrels who have popped up in Cuba and in Miami. Others go to third countries, such as the Dominican Republic or Ecuador, where sometimes they get bogged down and never make the desired trip with destination USA.

Another way used a lot is through Mexico. The family on the other side of the puddle pays the accounts of the Mexican mafias, who profit from the desperation of human beings. Their relatives run great risks, having to cross the dangerous border.

It’s a reality. Cubans who emigrate are discontent with their lives and the natural shortages of a closed and authoritarian society. In them, the desire to risk their lives is stronger than to continue living without a future. They prefer to fight for their skin before going out into the streets to protest.

Ramón, the frustrated rafter, thinks about trying his luck again. For the thirteenth time. Let’s hope this might not be his unlucky number.

Translated by: JT

November 19, 2010