“The Little Rafter” and His Fourteen Attempts / Laritza Diversent

People in his neighborhood call Pedro Luis García El Balserito, the Little Rafter, because of the number of times he has attempted to flee the country – always by sea. He has yet to reach his goal, but he says he’ll never cease his efforts, and that the only way to stop him is to lock him up.

El Balserito can recite from memory Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, rapping: “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and to choose to reside within the borders of a state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

In Cuba, exiting or entering the national territory is subject to legal requirements. Failure to comply with the law is a crime punishable by fines of 300 pesos to 500 thousand pesos, or a sentence of up to 3 years imprisonment, or up to 8 years if the offender used violence or intimidation against other people or used forged papers.

No one would believe that “rafter”, who is just over five feet tall and under 100 pounds, has made fourteen attempts at illegal departure from the island. Nine of his adventures, which occurred between 1998 and 2004, were frustrated by U.S. authorities.

He was returned in compliance with the existing imigration agreement between Cuba and the United States, in place since 1994, signed after the mass exodus that took place at various coastal sites in August ’94. Pedro Luis was then a 12-year-old adolescent.

Despite its being a crime, he was never punished. The State, in compliance with the bilateral treaty, agreed to suspend the application of legal sanctions against the boat people who were repatriated to the island.

In four of his last attempts, the “rafter” had to return voluntarily, given the poor technical condition of the raft, as these rustic boats are referred to in Cuba. In the latest attempt, less than eight months ago, he was caught red-handed by Cuban border guards, nine miles from the coast.

It unfolded in the same manner as the previous attempts. But this time, when he returned home, there was something different. A month later, the Captain of the Port of Havana reported a decision in which the rafter and every one of his traveling companions had to pay a fine of eight thousand pesos for violating the regulations on possession and handling of boats.

Pedro Luis and the others were guilty of four of the 14 violations that are covered by the Decree-Law 194, “From the infringements on the possession and operation of ships in the national territory,” described as ‘very serious’ by the decree itself.

The fine was for boat-building without authorization, for using illegally obtained means, for operating without being registered in the Port Authority, and for navigating waters without permission.

The decree, issued by the State Council, authorizes the Port Authority to apply the forfeiture and civil penalties, the amount ranging from 500 pesos to 10 thousand pesos, depending on the classification of the violations: minor, serious and very serious. It also punishes recidivism or the commission of several offenses.

Pedro Luis did not expect this. In fact, he didn’t even know there was such a rule. He does not understand why the Port Captain citation made no reference to leaving the country illegally. “Well, if not for one thing, it’s for another, they always keep an ace up their sleeve,” he says.

Anyway, the “rafter” has no income or assets to pay the fines. On the other hand, he is convinced that he should attempt to flee the country. “Better to die trying and much better than ending up in prison for not paying a fine.”

Translated by Karen Chun

November 19, 2010