14ymedio, Madrid, 22 April 2022 — Elián López Cabrera, the diving instructor who arrived in the US at the end of March on a windsurfing board, thought he was going to die on his way to Florida, but today he is safe and staying at a friend’s house in Miami. The migrant, who left the island for health reasons and to give his daughter a better future, has recounted his odyssey to Atahualpa Amerise, former EFE correspondent in Havana, who currently reports for BBC Mundo.
López, 48 years old and originally from Varadero, was a diving instructor for tourists in the resort and is passionate about nautical activities. The migrant relates, as his cousin already reported, that in 2008 he was diagnosed with colon cancer for which he was treated in Cuba with chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery.
In 2009 he underwent a permanent colostomy, something that particularly affected him because of his profession. The solution to be able to continue practicing these sports was in the use of some patches that were recommended to him, but since they are not available in Cuba, his mother made them for him with a sewing machine. Nor were the classic bags available.
“I know people in Cuba who use a plastic bag with adhesive tape and it’s terrible because of the bad smell and irritation,” says López, who recounts his experiences in the first person. The discomfort caused by coping with his condition in Cuba and the desire to give his daughter Nicole a future without shortages were decisive for him to make the decision to leave the island.
López explains in great detail how his unusual exit was organized. He first chose the material, a board on which his relatives learned to navigate, including his wife and daughter, because it was wide and stable. “If there was an unexpected thing, it was that I could actually rest on it a little bit, almost lie down,” he says. His knowledge of the sea no doubt saved him, and now the board is in the attic of a Hialeah workshop.
He also added spare parts in case something went wrong. However, what he could not foresee was the change in the wind compared to what was announced, which that day was weaker than expected. Despite this, he does not regret it, and he affirms that, perhaps if he had not gone out that day he would never have done it.
The first part, his story continues, was to evade the Cuban border guards and other large ships: a costly operation due to the scarce wind. But the worst came later because, although due to his specialization he is not afraid of big waves, the currents were unpredictable. “It looks like a river in places, because the current comes from one direction and in 500 yards it comes from the other.” In addition, the wind speed dropped still more and at that moment he realized that he would not arrive that day.
López details that at night it is impossible to follow the route he planned, because the sea worsens and the darkness makes it impossible to see. A blow of the waters can be deadly and there is no one who can help you. Those hours were terrible for him, he tried to relax – impossible to sleep – on the board, but holding on to a rope so as not to fall; a wave threw him into the sea and he lost his glasses, which prevented him from seeing the GPS and, worst of all, at dawn he realized that the little water he had left had mixed with the seawater.
In the morning, he continues his story, the wind had changed his location, so he had to change the route to enter a more distant point but that day his phone, with an American SIM, began to have coverage and he was able to inform his acquaintances of the situation. His fear was that the Coast Guard would rescue him at that time, an option suggested by his friends in Florida. “There is a possibility that they will send me back to Cuba and everything will return to zero, or even worse, because this would probably mean losing my job and being classified by the authorities.”
At that point, however, he feared he would die because the shore was still far away and he was losing the strength to keep his balance or set a course. In addition, he had no food or water, so he ended up giving in to the coastguard being notified.
The Coast Guard rescued him as the sun was setting and took him to a hospital, at which point López realized he could stay in the US. The nurse who treated him couldn’t believe the colostomy patches, he explained, and even asked him if his mother was a nurse.
“My mother is a mother, a mother from Cuba, who has to be creative, who has to be innovative and looking for solutions for her son, how can she not be?” he told her.
After his stay at the hospital and processing at Immigration, he was released and is now studying how to organize his life: his legal status, a job and, above all, how to reunite the family.
“Bringing my wife and daughter over is my number one priority: my wife is my right hand, left hand and both feet, she is my nurse, she is my dietician; she is my partner in life during my illness, in the years afterwards and in this latest madness,” he says.
And, about his daughter, he only asks that she have opportunities for the future. “That she is in a place where she can develop as a person, as a professional, lead a different life than the one we led in Cuba.”
COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.