Rafters' desperate journeys reshaped the exile experience
BY DANIEL de VISE AND ELAINE DE VALLE
First of four parts
Ten years ago today, 1,500 Cubans who had cast themselves adrift in homemade rafts, bound for Florida and freedom, found themselves waylaid at a dusty military camp back on the island, sunburned and thirsty, captured pawns in a political standoff.
They were the first of 30,000 Cubans detained at the U.S. Navy base in Guantánamo, Cuba, in a migration crisis that would reshape South Florida.
Those balseros, and the 200,000 or so who followed legally in a visa program prompted by the rafter crisis, would rejuvenate Cuban Miami. Their sheer desperation -- for every three rafters who won this game of Cuban roulette, experts say, at least one lost -- also inspired rapid and far-reaching change in American immigration law.
''I'll just tell you one thing,'' said Isaias Alonso, a rafter who brought his family to Miami 10 years ago. ``If I had to do it again, I'd do it again.''
When the crisis was over, Cubans had lost their exclusive status among American immigrants, no longer automatically welcome. And Miami's exile community was about to lose its unanimity as a political force, Fidel Castro no longer its singular focus.
The rafters ushered in a new generation of Cuban South Floridians, molded in the classic immigrant tradition, a group more interested in home ownership, SUVs and suburbia than in talk radio and trade embargoes. Consider: Among the dozens of exile political and social groups still active in South Florida, balsero membership is close to zero.
They are ''sort of allergic to politics,'' said Holly Ackerman, a researcher at the University of Miami who has studied balseros for the past decade.
If the old-guard exiles still fixate on Cuba, the balsero generation is obsessed with Cubans: wives and husbands, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers and aunts, uncles and cousins, all the people they left behind.
Ninety-five percent of immigrants from the balsero generation have relatives still on the island, compared with just over half of those who arrived in the dawn of the Castro government, according to a recent Florida International University poll.
This may be why, on questions of travel to Cuba or sending money and care packages, polls show the two groups sharply divided. The FIU poll showed 68 percent of immigrants who arrived since 1985 support unrestricted travel to Cuba, compared with only 28 percent of those who arrived between 1959 and 1964.
NOT ONE BLOC
As more balseros become citizens, register to vote and find their voice, Cuban America may look less and less like a monolithic voting bloc.
''They should just open the gates and let everyone visit Cuba and talk to the people there and show them what the world is really like,'' said Ricardo Hernández, 39, a balsero. He opposes both the embargo and the recent tightening of sanctions by the Bush administration.
The rafter crisis brought an influx of entrepreneurial, risk-taking Cubans to Clinton-era Miami. Nearly 80,000 Cubans, including the Guantánamo rafters and the first wave of post-balsero visa holders, came to the United States in 1994 and 1995, according to Census data. Two-thirds, 51,293, came to Miami-Dade, and 2,880 to Broward. The rest scattered around the nation.
They had worked under a communist system, and they arrived with skills that didn't necessarily transfer to the United States, particularly among the four in five balseros who spoke no English.
''At first I had to work construction and selling clothes in a retail store and in a warehouse,'' recalled Hernández, who had been a gym teacher in Cuba; now he is a personal trainer. ``When you get here, you have to start your whole life anew. It's like being a baby in diapers.''
Many of the 3,000 balsero children entered the Miami-Dade public school system; at one point in early 1995, the district was admitting 400 Cubans a month.
Even as the balseros re-Cubanized South Florida, infusing the region with art and culture and inspiration, their exit seems to have helped the Castro government. The rafter crisis delivered Castro into a political compromise with the Americans that provided an escape valve for his disaffected countrymen: a quota of 20,000 visas a year for entry to the United States.
''That escape valve has been a crucial factor in the survival of the regime,'' said U.S. Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart, a Miami Republican. ``Castro has basically converted Cuba into a place where people are dreaming about the possibility of winning one of the 20,000 visas. That is a very important control mechanism.''
Anyone watching the Florida coastline in the early 1990s could see the crisis coming. Following the collapse of his Soviet communist sponsors, Castro and his government were flagging. In the towns of Cuba, where food and staples seemed scarcer than ever, discontent brewed.
Cuban rafters, who have been a phenomenon since the Kennedy administration, began to cast off in alarming numbers: from a few hundred rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1990 to 1,936 in 1991, 2,336 in 1992 and then 3,687 in 1993.
It was aquatic insurrection, and the Castro government closed in. On July 13, 1994, Cuban government boats sank a commandeered tugboat named the 13 de Marzo seven miles out of Havana Harbor. At least 39 people died.
On Aug. 5, outraged Cuban citizens watched the government retake a hijacked ferry in Havana Bay to thwart another escape attempt. Rioting erupted. People chanted anti-government slogans, carried signs that said ''Assassin'' and ''Down With Fidel'' and threw stones at police and shop windows.
Castro blamed the U.S. for encouraging hijackings and threatened to unleash another mass exodus. Then he drew back the Frontier Guard and forced the U.S. government into a bizarre and deadly game of chicken.
By inviting his citizens to leave, Castro launched a junkyard armada, sending 30,000 Cubans to America on vessels built from inner tubes, Styrofoam and rusted car parts.
Thousands more went to their deaths.
On Aug. 15, the Coast Guard rescued 282 Cuban rafters at sea, the most in a single day since the 1980 Mariel boatlift.
''We used to see patches of seaweed. Now we were seeing patches of human beings,'' recalled José Basulto of Brothers to the Rescue, the exile group that patrolled the straits by air to locate rafters.
On Aug. 19 -- as the Coast Guard set a new record with 745 Cubans rescued at sea -- President Bill Clinton announced that all intercepted rafters would be sent to the Guantánamo naval base, detained indefinitely or sent home.
Instead of stopping the rafters, the announcement encouraged them. A four-day raft voyage to Florida was now a day trip to the waiting American ships, a dozen miles off Cuba in international waters.
The Coast Guard collected 2,338 rafters on Aug. 22, and 2,886 more on Aug. 23.
''I knew we were going to be picked up. I knew it,'' recalled Alonso, whose family was spotted by a Coast Guard helicopter eight hours after their departure on Sept. 2.
Back in Miami, the heart of Cuban exile, the news was far more sobering.
Clinton's pronouncement, a decision colored by an era of backlash against illegal immigration, marked the first time that an American government would deny Cuban refugees entry to the United States.
Miami Cubans, burned by the Bay of Pigs disaster three decades earlier, lost another measure of trust for the government of their adoptive home.
''To send them to Guantánamo was tough for me,'' said Cesar Odio, Miami's city manager at the time, who would later quit the Democratic party in protest over Clinton's handling of the crisis.
There was also a palpable tension, as hundreds of South Florida Cubans awaited loved ones who never made it.
How many rafters died in August 1994?
Basulto's pilots found one empty raft for every three they found bearing live cargo.
Arturo Cobo, guardian angel of the rafters and founder of the now-defunct Transit Center for Cuban Refugees, filled out hundreds of 4x6 cards with notes from Cubans who called him looking for relatives who had left in rafts.
''I can tell you,'' Cobo said, ``that 80 percent of the calls, they never showed up.''
Most who managed to survive the voyage endured the better part of a year at Guantánamo, living behind barbed wire in tents that felt like prison camps.
Not until May 2, 1995, would Clinton allow most of the detainees into the United States. About 500 Cubans with criminal records or physical or mental defects were sent home.
For many rafters, the difficult task was adjusting to life in the U.S. Books and documentaries portray some balseros chasing the American dream and others descending into drugs, prostitution and poverty.
Ackerman believes many rafters still suffer from post-traumatic stress. That could explain why several rafters contacted by The Herald did not want to share their memories of August 1994.
''I want to close that chapter in my life,'' said Guillermo Armas, who was featured in a cinematic documentary about the balseros. ``That is something that is over. I suffered a lot. It was an incredible experience. I lived it.
``And I don't want to relive it over again.''
Herald Database Editor Tim Henderson contributed to this report, which
was supplemented with data from www.ipums.org.