Reminding them While partying in Key West, one is reminded that just across the straits there are those who are much less fortunate. At the same time in Key West one can find a museum about the Balseros
Hustlers Cubans can sometimes make deals with American 'human brokers', Cubans get picked up by boat in Cuba, and these hopeful immigrants are subsequently transported to Florida ... but ... It sometimes tragically happens that these vessels are overcrowded and they either founder or sink outright. There is drama on the high seas daily ... Rafter's Stories ...
The Rafter, a real story ...
The sunlight woke him up. It had been an unusually quiet evening, and for the first time in many days he had been able to enjoy a restful sleep. Martin had been at sea four days, but anxiety and worry had not allowed him to sleep through an entire evening.
As he had been doing unconsciously from the very first day of his adventure at sea, Martin began talking to himself. "What would I give for a cup of coffee right now! What day is today? I think the 23rd, or maybe the 24th? D. it, four days at sea and I'm not even sure of the date! Oh, well, had I not left, I'd already used up this month's rations."
As he did several times a day, Martin began taking inventory of everything in the small sailboat: Almost half a gallon of water - a major concern; six pieces of stale bread, wrapped in nylon to keep them dry; a recipient containing a coconut dessert he had bought from old Toño, at premium price, but he was saving it as a last resort because he knew it would make him thirsty; a small bag of powder milk, almost empty; half an avocado; six plums, and two mangoes left of the six he had managed to get just before leaving. "This means that I've been four days at sea, because I've eaten one a day. Yesterday I ate the last bit of mashed potatoes and pumpkin I made before leaving. I should have saved it for today. I have to space my eating or I won't have enough left to last me until I get there.
Pedro, the old man, told me that at this time of the year the currents should take the boat to Key West in four days, or maybe less, and that the trade winds and all that other stuff that I don't quite understand would help me get there in this crummy boat. But it's been longer that that and all I see is water everywhere. I hope he told me the truth because this small boat is not worth the $800 dollars I gave him, which cost me a lot of sweat and blood to get.
Well, I had no other choice. When I made the decision to leave and the old man offered to sell me the boat, I began selling all my worldly possessions, for dollars - my Zenith black and white TV, which still worked better than any Russian TV thanks to all the tricks of Leovigildo, the technician, every time a tube went out; my bicycle, "Cucusa", thanks to which I had transportation; the radio Aunt Clotilda, bought me last year at the "shopping". I recall how much I had needed that radio because the Russian radio I had broke down and there were no parts available anywhere to fix it - the same Russian radio I had been authorized to buy during the Annual Assembly for the acquisition of electrical home equipment. Every time I think of those annual assemblies, my stomach churns and I can't understand how we were able to take all that ignominy for so many years. Fortunately, those assemblies came to an end when the "caballo" began needing dollars. There was no longer any need to turn Pedro in to the Assembly for allowing his mother baptize the boy. This would have eliminated Pedro from the list and I allow me to buy the radio; or for Casimiro to denounce that Gregorio had pictures of saints in the back room of his house in order to get Gregorio's name off the list for the purchase of the fan. I still remember how much I enjoyed the beating Ramón gave tattletale Roberto ("Sour Face") when he mentioned seeing his wife going to church. Well, all of that was before, now no one has to turn in anyone for things like that because neither the Union nor the Party, nor anyone else for that matter, cares about things like that anymore. All they are interested in now is getting their hands in dollars.
And that's why I'm here! I'm going to where the dollars are. Miami! I only hope that those marks Pedro made are correct, because I have been following his instructions to the letter: When the sun's up, the stick's shadow has to project on this line here; at noontime, it has to be here, and when the sun sets, it has to be there." He examined the makeshift "compass." It consisted of a piece of wood nailed to the boat's prow, with a small metal rod to its right side. On the left side, an "A" had been printed, which really stood for late afternoon; an "N for noon, and an "M" for morning or sunrise. As long as the shadow of that small rod stayed on those marks, the boat was traveling north-northwest. Pedro had tried to teach him how to stay on course following the Great Bear constellation, but despite having studied Geography, and as much as Pedro had tried to teach him, Martin could still not tell the Great Bear from the Little Bear. So, just to be on the safe side, Martin was trying to stay on course according to the last mark of the rod at sunset, and, whenever necessary, he corrected the course the following morning.
"I wonder what Julia is doing right this minute? God, I really loved that woman! Because of her I didn't leave Cuba five years ago when my cousins left. It was easier then, and cheaper! We would have been enjoying the dolce vita in Miami. Two years after leaving, my cousins came visiting, loaded with dollars and presents.
But no, she kept saying that she couldn't possibly leave her parents. Then, when they allowed us Cubans to shop in the dollar-only stores and then they opened the "shopping" stores, she came up one day with a new TV, followed by two fans and then a shaker. She began wearing jeans that drove the men in the neighborhood crazy. I'm no fool. One day, I saw her go out with Marisela, who had been something else since high school, and I followed the bus they'd taken in my bicycle. They got off at La Rampa and soon thereafter, at the corner of the Havana Libre Hotel; they began to entice the tourists. They were prostitutes!
Right then and there I yelled and screamed at them. I was arrested, bicycle and all - fortunately. Well, I say fortunately because of the bicycle, not the arrest. They really let me have it, but the police understood the situation, and after promising not to go anywhere near Julia, they let me go. She had made me waste five years of my life that I could have spent in Miami enjoying life. And that's when I decided to leave. I began avoiding being seen around the neighborhood, for I didn't want to come face to face with her. An to make matters worse, whenever I visited my Aunt to have a bite to eat, she kept telling me 'I told you so, I told you she was no good!' I never went back to see my Aunt.
I amaze myself at these recollections, Gosh; I really wasted a lot of time! Not only with Julia, but also with the Revolution. I was a Pioneer, in the militia and was also a "volunteer" sugar cane cutter. From an early age, I proudly wore my red Pioneer scarf, and used to proudly yell: 'We'll be like Che.' What a waster of my youth! And I wonder what became of Maite? That was another one. Maite could have helped me leave the country. We had an affair not even those Brazilian torrid novellas could close to! She offered to marry me and take me to Barcelona, but I had been in love with Julia and with the Revolution ever since I was a boy. I recall that every once in a while, on a Sunday, Julia and I would go to the pizzeria and in our love even enjoyed standing in those long lines. But when the dollars arrived, she because a prostitute. Right now, she must be having lunch at La Zaragozana or El Torreón.
Is it my imagination or something is ahead? Let me lower the sail in case that's an American Coast Guard ship, because if they spot me, I'm history. They'll take me to Guantanamo and return me to Cuba. I'd rather starve to death or drown. May God and my Virgin of Charity protect me! I'm scared to death of sharks and believe that drowning is the worst thing in the world. But no way what happened to the Jimenez brothers is not going to happen to me. I remember someone telling me how after five days with their wives and children in the boat and almost no food or water left, they saw a ship in the distance and waved at it. The ship went toward them. They tell me it was an American Coast Guard patrol boat, white with read vertical lines. The Americans took them to Guantanamo, very hypocritically treated them well, gave them food, drink and clothes, including dessert for the children. They interviewed them, and the questions they were asked led them to believe that those questions were to grant them asylum. Such as, why they wanted to go to the U.S., whether they had any family there, what kind of education they had had, their address in Cuba, and many other questions. A week later, they delivered them to the Cuban Ministry of the Interior, along with all the interview papers including all those questions they had been asked during the so-called interview. This was a year ago. They have been officially notified that they may not be able to hold any state jobs because they tried to leave the island illegally. Further, that they can't be self-employed, and that they may not even sell any corn fritters. In fact, Quico Jimenez's wife sold some fritters to two neighbors and one of them turned her in to the Committee and she was arrested. As soon as Quico arrived she was released, but the Party representative, who had been notified of all of this, told Quico that both him and his brother had to ask their relatives to send them dollars, and that this was the ONLY choice repatriated Cubans have.
The only choice. two days later this guy from State Security came to see him, talking very cautiously. Quico told me that he only knew him casually, but the guy told him that he had known him since they were both members of the Communist Youth body and had always liked him; that he knew he was an honest man, was well aware that times were rough for a family man and that he understood his predicament. All of this and a lot of other soft-soaping, to end up telling him, while threatening him to have him "disappear" if he breathed a word of this to anyone, that he knew how for $20,000 dollars he could get him to Miami, without incurring any risk whatsoever, as well as his wife, his brother and the three kids from the two couples. I don't know where the hell Quico and his brother got the $20,000 dollars, but two months ago his cousin showed me a photo of the seven of them in Miami. Where was I going to get $5,000 when I sold everything I owned to get the $800 to buy the boat and the crummy food I brought along? Let me lay down on the floor of the boat because even though that ship is far away, they might see me through binoculars. Humm, that ship is white, just like the Coast Guards, but from here I can't detect any of the red lines the Jimenez told me about. There, it's gone. Let me raise the little sail again. Pedro didn't lie; it's weird how this small sail pulls the boat.
I should have arrived by now. Could I be off course? It's a shame the old man could not come! We wouldn't have had any problems. But he didn't want to leave the grandkids and he doesn't stand a chance because, as he told me, his son-in-law is a member of the Party and since the Party gave him a scooter he thinks he's king of the world. Unreal how little it takes for the Party to own people. I remember Jorge Milanes. Well, the Party didn't give him anything, but he was responsible for security at the factory and turned out to be more repressive than the Head of State Security. I was lucky. When the old man took me out to teach me how to handle the sail, no one suspected anything. True, he would say out loud enough for anyone standing around to hear that we were going out for just a little while, and always tried to get someone to give us a push into the water so that they could see that we didn't have anything inside the boat, not even fishing equipment, because they would have confiscated the boat if we went out to fish. That's why the old man sold me the boat. Since last year no one can go out fishing, not even in an inner tube, because fishing is prohibited. You can only fish from the Malecon. And rather than watching it decay little by little, or having it confiscated, he decided to sell it. And a good sale it was for him. Eight hundred dollars! The equivalent of more than $16,000 pesos. More than three years salary for this old boat! Sorry, my Queen, I didn't mean to offend you. My destiny is in your hands. Maybe out there on the beach you were an old boat, but here you are my luxury yacht taking me to freedom. You are young and beautiful. Please don't get offended and sink to the bottom of the sea! Well, I hope it stays on course, and with the help of Cachita, my beloved virgin, I'll get there. By the way, my Virgin, I hope you've forgiven me for having rejected you all those years, but you know it wasn't our fault. Today I can see more clearly and I promise you that as soon as I get there, with your help, I will make it up to you for having rejected you all those years."
It had been a few hours since Martin had seen that ship disappear in the horizon, so he went on philosophizing: "Here I'm on my way to the unruly and brutal U.S., as Jose Marti used to say. But I don't believe that the U.S. is that unruly and brutal. In a way, I'm glad my folks died long before the Special Period. The Special Period brought a lot of poverty, but it served to open our eyes and see the lies we were told and the way they have forced us to live. Poor dad, how proud he was of his Machetero Diploma, and mom, with a photo of her standing next to Fidel in 1961. They would have died of a stroke upon learning that the beaches that Fidel said in 1961 "are for the people and not for any private little clubs," today the Commander in Chief has ruled are exclusively for tourists. And if they had not died from this shock, they would have died of shame for having sacrificed their youth and their entire lives for a revolution that after 40 years pays the people in pesos but only accepts the "hated" American dollar in its stores. Yes, I believe it's better that they died a long time ago and that they did not have to find out how they were used and betrayed!
It's dark already. It must be around 10:00 p.m. because the sun set a while ago. I shouldn't have sold my old Ultramar winding watch, which I inherited from my old man, but I had to convert everything I had in dollars for this trip.
I wonder what's up with Maite. She really used to get mad whenever I called her Galician! And that's because, and I don't know why, in Cuba we call all Spaniards Galicians. My love affair with Mate, who was a member of the Catalonian Communist Party, and my relationship with other youngsters I met during the Conferences and in the Youth and Student Festivals years ago, was what prompted me to start asking myself some questions: How come those comrades who lived in capitalistic countries had all the freedom in the world and were able to visit Cuba whenever they wanted and we, who lived in the "first free country in America" could not get permission to leave the island and visit them? And when the Special Period arrived because the Soviets came into some hard times, they sold us to the American dollar. We can't buy anything in Cuba with our Cuban pesos bearing the faces of our patriots, only the dollars with the American patriot faces on them can cut it now. And for this we sacrificed ourselves for so many years, to finally having to accept the American dollar! No, my parents would not have been able to see how "their revolution" now caters to all foreigners, especially the Americans, who visit the island, and provides them with all kinds of luxuries and the most delicious victuals while denying us, the people of Cuba, the most elementary commodities for our Daily sustenance.
I see a light ahead. D. it! Could it be Miami? Or perhaps I've been going around in circles and that's Havana. No, it can't be, it has to be Miami. Well, the time has arrived and I must now row really hard so that I can get there while it's still dark and prevent them from spotting me in the daylight and arresting me. These are the things we talk about in Cuba: Before, the Americans were friendly to all "worms" and all "traitors" who dared leave the island. The American Coast Guard would rescue the drafters from really close to Cuba and would take them to Miami. Now, they have an arrangement with Fidel and even when they pick us up on their beaches, they return us to Cuba where we have to become beggars to implore dollars for Cuba.
I'm getting tired. Well, whatever is ahead, there's no turning back now. If it's Miami, I've arrived; if it's Cuba, I'll see if I can hide somewhere, rest a little and start all over again in two or three days. It has to be soon because Pedro told me that the weather is bound to change in a few days and the seas will get rough. I'm going to save a little bit of powder milk and the dessert, just in case. But I'd better eat the mangoes because they are really ripe. I'll rest a little, and then I'll continue rowing.
I'm getting blisters on my hands, but have to keep on rowing. I had to lower the sail because the wind shifted. That's definitely not Havana because at this hour there are not so many lights on in Havana due to the usual blackouts. But I always thought Miami would be a lot bigger and with many more lights. A little longer and I'm there. Gee, this area is not well lighted, but there are about six fishing boats and. Hot d.! I've arrived! No siree, this is not Cuba!"
Martin pushes the boat toward the sand, fearfully looking right and left and over his shoulders. He is so moved that his knees are shaking.
A short distance from the sand he sees a street and some people walking around, despite the late hour. Trembling, he starts walking on the sidewalk. There are some houses across the street and in the distance he sees some neon signs which he can't read.
He sees a couple and another one several feet behind coming the opposite direction. They are all dressed in shorts and summer clothing. "Let me play dumb and see who they are. These people are talking in English. I have definitely arrived. Thank you, my Lady of Charity! In spite of the fact that I behaved badly toward you, you didn't forsake me. Here comes another couple. They are talking in Spanish! Let me try my luck.
- "Good evening," says Martin.
- "Good evening," answers the man.
- "Excuse me, but can you tell me the name of this place?"
- "S.! A RAFTER!, screams happily the man when hearing the question and noticing Martin's demeanor.
- "Listen, I'm not a rafter," exclaims Martin, still afraid.
- "Relax my man, don't worry," said the man while hugging Martin effusively. "You are in Key West. Come with us. Look, this is my wife Clotilde; she is also Cuban, from Caibarien. My name if Julio and I'm from Havana. Tonight you are going to eat like never before and rest in my house, and tomorrow I'll take you to another Cuban. He is a lawyer and he'll take care of your problem. D. it! Cheer up! You look gloomier than a dead man's relative."
Martin smiles from ear to ear, and thinks: "Well. I'm definitely here, and it looks just like I thought -- that the U.S. is neither unruly nor unkind.
FIN Jose Luis Fernandez