Ray Sanchez | Direct from Havana
June 29, 2008
Marta and 14-year-old son Anselmo packed a navy-blue knapsack with
bottled water, cheese, crackers, hand towels, sugar, sunscreen and a
miniature ceramic Our Lady of Charity, Cuba's patron saint.
"She'll protect us," said Marta, a 47-year-old medical lab technician
who asked that her full name not be used for fear of reprisal. "Anything
happens, I'm with my son."
"Nothing can go wrong. We're going to El Yuma," said Anselmo, using
Cuban slang for the United States. His confidence gave away their
inexperience. It was their first attempt to leave Cuba by sea.
New tragedies on the Florida Straits do little to deter other mothers
and sons from packing a bag and heading into the tropical night. U.S.
officials said the number of Cubans trying to cross the Straits is rising.
In fiscal 2007, the U.S. Coast Guard interdicted 2,868 Cubans at sea,
the highest total since the rafter crisis in 1994, when more than 37,000
left the island. Since Oct. 1, 1,733 Cubans have been interdicted,
compared with 1,547 a year earlier.
In April, Cuban reggaeton artist Elvis Manuel, 18, perished at sea when
the smuggling vessel carrying him, his mother and other migrants
overturned near the Florida coast. His mother, Irioska Maria Nodarse,
survived and, in anguish and shock, returned to Cuba on an American
Coast Guard vessel.
On June 16, Vivian America Sanchez Cabrera and her 10-year-old son,
Jorge Luis Nunez Sanchez, sat side-by-side on a rowboat packed with
Florida-bound migrants. Their vessel was rammed by a smuggler's
speedboat. The rowboat overturned. Sanchez Cabrera lost sight of her
only son, whose body was recovered beneath the capsized vessel.
"I wanted to leave because of him," said Sanchez Cabrera, 44, back in
the rural community of La Sierra in Villa Clara province after being
rescued by the Cuban coast guard. "I wanted only a better future for
him. I waited for him to get a little older to make this trip."
U.S. diplomats said 70 percent of the migrants are young people between
18 and 35 years old. They said the figures show Cubans have little faith
life would improve under Raul Castro, who officially succeeded ailing
brother Fidel as president in February.
Havana accuses the United States of encouraging Cubans to risk their
lives at sea by granting residence to those who reach American soil.
Visa applications can take between three and seven years. Thousands of
Cubans who left over the years still have wives, husbands and children
on the island.
"I love my father and I want to be close to him as soon as possible,"
said Abel Lazaro Gonzalez, 16, who survived the June 16 smuggling
attempt that killed the 10-year-old boy and Yudersi Rosabal Rodriguez,
19, of the central city of Sagua la Grande.
Gonzalez, whose father lives in Miami, stood at the bedside of his
mother, Julia Maria Santana, a 41-year-old nurse. She was recovering at
a hospital in Sagua la Grande, a three-hour drive east of Havana, from
arm and leg injuries suffered in the escape attempt. Both left open the
possibility of another try.
In Havana, Marta and Anselmo took their knapsack and boarded a
Russian-made sedan for the drive to Sagua la Grande.
From there, smugglers would take them to a departure point on the
northern coast of Cuba. In northern New Jersey, relatives they haven't
seen in years were waiting.
"We know the danger," Marta said. "Anything happens, we'll be together.
Ray Sánchez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.