Interview with a rafter

The Story of an Obsession
Interview with a Rafter

By Yoani Sanchez

Translated from Entrevista con un balsero.

The relativity of distances obsesses the Cuban balseros [rafters, i.e. those who try to escape to the U.S. by sea].  “So close yet so far,” the strip of sea that lies between Cuba and the United States seems to say.

When the Institute of Meteorology announces several days with good weather, then the remote Cuban coast sees the rafters arrive, the men and women who the nation is losing, who no longer stay to employ their talents, their time, their lives, in Cuba.  Some will blame this illegal emigration on the “economy,” as if economics and politics could, in Cuba, each go their own way.

Carlos Manuel [not his real name] has made three attempts to leave the country illegally.  On the first attempt, he was denounced by one of the group and didn’t even get away from the coast.  The second took him outside the territorial waters until he and his fellow rafters were  intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard.  Now, he has just returned from third trip where the propeller broke and the engine seized up for lack of oil.

While he shows me the drawings of a “boat” manufactured with irrigation pipes, he says that this summer he will succeed.   He agrees to share his story in an interview, but not before enlightening me that I should not put his real name, nor say from which part of the north coast he plans to exit.

You have already tried three times to reach the coast of the United States. Why this obsession with reaching it or, if you prefer, leaving?

I have been thinking of leaving this country for over ten years.  At first I wanted to do it through a letter of invitation to Italy, but it didn’t work because between the exit permit, passport and ticket, what I had to pay totaled more than a thousand dollars and I just could not bear these costs and neither side knew anybody there to help me.  So I reflected a bit and I told myself: “I know the sea very well, from when I was very small I have been in the water.” So I decided to use the sea to fulfill my dream of leaving Cuba.

At first it was the same to me, where I would go, I just wanted to close my eyes and be away from all the things that annoy me every day.  Being a thousand kilometers from the end of the line for bread, the Head of Sector, transport problems, Roundtables, and also my family, since we don’t all fit in the house and coexistence becomes very difficult.

Some of my friends went to Spain, others are married to foreigners and now I get postcards from incredible places.  Others preferred to stay and really don’t do well. When I meet them they tell me that they still live with their parents and now receive from their workplace an extra bag, once a month, with soap and detergent.  I do not want that for my life, I do not want to be in my sixties and have a pension that won’t support me and have to sell cigarettes to survive, and all of these things in my own country.  I do not want my life to depend on the whims of a few top people who will decide this month whether I will eat peas or lentils.  I want to experiment, I want to try other things, and I don’t think that in the next ten years I can do that here.

The second time you were caught by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Americans returned you to the island.   Can you tell us the details of this process from the time the raft was illuminated by spotlights until the Cuban police left you at your house?

It was very hard for everyone in the raft when we realized we had been intercepted.  We had invested money from the sale of all of our personal belongings to make the raft, so in a few minutes all those resources, plus the time and energy for many months that we had used to construct the boat, went down the tubes. The first reaction we had was not to let them catch us, but we were far from the coast and there was no escape, so we had to surrender.

The American Coast Guard neutralized us quickly, without violence, but with a professionalism and authority that left us no other choice but to cooperate.  They took us in a small boat to a ship that serves as a shelter for all those they stop on the high seas.  They bring together all the people who have been intercepted so they have a lot of people to return to Cuba.

I found the people on that ship fantastic. Although most were very young, we also saw some elderly people and even women with very young children. Each of us was interviewed by an immigration officer and they confiscated all we were carrying. Luckily I was able to hide the GPS which was the most valuable thing I had; it was the same one I used the third time.

Three days after being in that “floating hostel” they brought us back and handed us over to the Cuban authorities. They made a record with our personal information and led us to a bus that took each of us to his own home. On my block they contacted the president of the CDR [Committee for the Defense of Revolution] and explained that I had made an attempt to leave the country illegally.  I felt like a child that a teacher was scolding front of its mother.

Hasn’t it occurred to you to free your mind of this obsession and to use your talents and energies in this country?

I’ve passed through many stages. At one point I was seriously looking for a job and I decided to make my life here.  But after six months I stopped.  On the one hand was the administrator who was sticking it to me because he knew I was the one who had returned after trying to leave on a raft; on the other hand I couldn’t find a space where I could say what I felt about everything around me, until it got to the point where I came to believe I was sick because everything bothered me.  But talking to people my age I realized that a wish to leave the country is widespread, perhaps more than people think.  I realized I was not a rare bird but that if there are those who are fighting for the dream of studying in college, or to be a famous artist, I was going to use my energies to fulfill my dream of traveling.  With that I don’t think you do any harm to anyone, it’s a personal decision and ought to be respected as one.

I also tried to make some handicrafts to earn a little extra money and to gain some independence from my parents but it all ended when they confiscated some wild cane I took from Lenin Park to make some ornaments.  I stopped everything with tremendous apathy.  I thought to continue studying, but the option to get involved with the Trabajadores Sociales [young adults in Cuba who do voluntary social work such as changing everyone’s incandescent light bulbs for energy saver bulbs – see Generation Y entry of 20 June 2008] didn’t appeal to me, nor did graduating and working for a wage that wouldn’t support me.  Then I started work at the CVP (Venezuelan Petroleum Corporation) but after three months on a trial status they said I wasn’t a reliable person and let me go.

You are just thirty years old, so you were a Pioneer, you repeated the slogan of “Pioneers for communism, we will be like Che.”  You belong to the generation that had to be “a new man” and shouted anti-imperialist slogans in front of the  American Interests Section (SINA); how is that the raft ended up being the path you chose?

I ask myself that. Because when I was a kid leaving the country was very frowned upon.  I remember that my mom had some aunts who left in the eighties from Mariel and their names could not be mentioned at home. One day they sent some jeans to my dad and we had to hide them because if we didn’t everyone would say that we were related to the “worms.”  But what is bad always becomes very attractive, and I started to be very interested in what was happening outside of Cuba.  For a long time I thought that anyone who left was a traitor to the country.  When I got the itch to leave Cuba, I reasoned that the others who had left were traitors but I was not.  It’s only now that I realize neither they, nor I, are betraying anybody.

What I see on television makes me more curious, because it can’t be that everyone else out there is so bad, so I thought I should go see for myself.   What attracts me to the United States is the same as for Mexico, or Finland or Australia.  I want to leave here.

Normally they paint people like us, the balseros as the lowest of the low, crazy to take the risk without knowing what they want.  But I’m no fool.  I was about to graduate in engineering only I got discouraged and left.  All the people that are planning this with me now, we are all educated, we even have a cybernetics specialist who is going to handle the rudder.

Tell us a bit about preparation for the exit.

Normally you must first decide what kind of boat you are going to make.  There are many variants, for example the one we are building now is irrigation pipe cut in half and then converted into plates that come together with rivets. As I know a little naval engineering, I’m very demanding with the details and I don’t want to set sail on anything improvised.  I am a bit of a perfectionist and do the math so that later, at sea, there won’t be any unpleasant surprises.  So each part for me takes at least about six months to collect materials and begin construction.

Once the materials are stored somewhere near the coast, then comes the building, which normally can not be inland because then it would be very heavy to carry to the sea.  In water up to your chest, you work somewhere where there’s enough vegetation to hide the work, for example in  a small river.  Sometimes it moves a little and then the police discover the boat before it’s ready and you lose everything.  That happened to me once.

Buying the engine is the most difficult because of the fuel and it must be in good condition so it can operate for long hours.  We need to begin to find out who has an engine to sell and do so with discretion so as not to be detected.  After that there is caulking the structure, as was done with irrigation pipes, and having a good location  for the engine and rudder. The quality of propeller is very important; it was because of a defect in the propeller that I was frustrated in my last attempt.

This time I will also carry a sail so that when we get close to shore we can shut down the engine and the Coast Guard won’t detect us because of the noise.  Then there are the supplies, including, of course, oil, water, food and hydration salts.  But we can’t overload the boat too much, so we have to calculate for a maximum four days at sea.  If the voyage lasts longer, either because the engine is broken, or because we lose our way, then we must endure hunger and thirst and pray that we are found.

You know, even though you were very young, about the crisis of the balseros in 1994 [known in the U.S. as “The Mariel Boatlift”].  How do you think it has changed the form of “launching into the sea.”

I believe that during the crisis of the balseros people went in more improvised boats, but now it is common for families to pay someone with a speedboat and to take relatives. There are also those, like me, who build their own boat, calmly and with their own resources.

Things have changed a lot, because now there are some technical details to facilitate the trip. For example, there are cell phones you can use if there is a mishap at sea or to tell your family what the situation is.  The best thing is to have GPS, and you can program it and steering is much easier, you just follow the route on the screen.

Also now you don’t have to reach the U.S.  Some Caribbean countries will also accept you if you arrive on their shores.  It’s more complicated and they don’t have the Cuban Adjustment Act [U.S. law that defines paths to citizenship for Cubans], but in the end they understand the situation and let you stay.

In the middle of the sea, with night falling, and away from Cuban territorial waters, did you not feel fear or remorse?

The truth is that the sea at night makes an impression. You’re not sure you’re going in the right direction and if any ship passes near, you think it is a shark.  Many times I said to myself, “How did I get into this?” but then I immediately knew I was already at the point where there’s no turning back  I think youth is the stage of life where you regret very few things, because there is still time to do it again if you go wrong.  I’m sure that if I were forty I wouldn’t be doing this.

I know that your great-grandparents chose this country to escape the rigors of Spain in the twenties. Why now do you want to do it in the other direction?  Why do you think Cuba is no longer a country of immigrants and has become one of migrants?

Well, I don’t know much about that.  What I know is that my maternal great-grandparents came here from Asturia in Spain looking for better opportunities.  But my family here depends on economic help sent by their parents, who left, to be able to live.

I’m not unpatriotic, as they say, I like my country and I read a lot of history of Cuba and I am thrilled about everything that this country has experienced.  When I see a sporting competition I will always support the Cuban team, but I am not blind and patriotism has to be more than that.  You assume that your country must also give you something, that it should be proud of you.  Sometimes, when I go to a coffee shop or I walk through Old Havana, people think that I am a foreigner because I have light eyes and very white skin.  At first I am treated very kindly but immediately when they hear me speak like a Cuban they totally change their attitude.  That hurts me, because I feel that as a Cuban I am on the lowest rung of the ladder and it can’t continue to be this way.  However, I see my friends, also Cuban, who left a couple of years ago and now they return and they can stay in a hotel, rent a car, speak more freely about what they think and they’re allowed to have a cell phone, and the truth is, I feel humiliated.

My own great-grandparents taught me to love this country from the time I was small, they talked about it as if they were born here. I would like to have a life here like the one they worked for as immigrants.

Once you were intercepted on the high seas you received a yellow envelope from the U.S. Coast Guard.  What did it contain and how did you use its contents?

With this envelope the U.S. authorities invited me to apply for a visa to legally emigrate. The form included a file number and asked me for information about myself.  I filled it out as a routine, because I know that the line to get such a visa is already several years long and I have heard that this year they’re not even going to meet the promised quota, so I prefer to do it my own, faster, way.

Have you received any pressure from the Cuban authorities after being returned?

After my second failure, when the U.S. authorities handed me over to the Cuban side, I have been pressured by the Head of Sector who wants to put me to work.   Whenever something happens, either the Summit of the Non-Aligned Nations or Operation Caguairán [internal troop training and mobilization program started in 2006], they call me to the police station and warn me that I can’t leave Havana.  Although they have never been violent with me, I feel controlled and monitored by them.  They even have visited workplaces where I have been hired and have warned my bosses of my intention to emigrate.  The last time they summoned me they were more intimidating and even warned that I could not continue relationships with some friends.

You’re young and you’ve already spent more than ten years of your life in a dream that you haven’t attained.   You don’ t think this means you should modify your plans and abandon the idea of emigrating?

I don’t think about dropping this idea.  I’ve spent a lot of time on the plan and I am completely “burned out,” I mean everybody knows that.  It’s like when you spend half an hour waiting at a bus stop and know that you could walk but you’re going to regret it if the bus passes you.  Anyway, how can I “modify my plans”?  By trying to climb the ladder of the system, or sign up with the opposition?

What do you think awaits you on the other side?

I am not of those who paints castles in the air and thinks of nothing else but having a car and a home. What I want is to work, and I want to be able to use what I earn with my job to have a normal life without having to steal or pretend.  The truth is that I do not think so much about material things that can be found there, but about everything that I can do there.  For example, I dream about being able to navigate the Internet, because I believe in all these years I haven’t been connected for even one hour reading all the information that interests me.

I want to travel and I want to do what I want, whether it’s paint my hair green or join the Green Party.  Anything, as long as I can decide. That is what most attracts me to living outside Cuba, the possibility of leaving behind all these restrictions that we Cubans face, all the discrimination in our own country, all the absurd bureaucracy that turns any small thing you do every day into an ordeal of paperwork and limitations.

I have a friend who married a German and now lives in Berlin, and tells me that if a hotel in that city didn’t let someone stay because of their nationality, either German, Turkish or Iranian, that would be a scandal that would generate press coverage and popular protests. Yet here, every day, we Cubans can not access places in our own country and services that tourists can use.   For that reason, I want to try in another country, to see what I can achieve, what I can do for myself that I can’t here.  To  buy what I need to in the same currency I earn for my work, to express my political views without fear and to be able to associate myself with these ideas. Finally, I want to be myself, which is, at the end, what I’m looking for.

I would like to convince you to abandon your plans, to stay here and try to change what you don’t like, to make your own space, but I would like to hear the arguments you would use to convince me otherwise.

Here I will not be able to change things as I want, because citizens do not have it in our own hands, we don’t have the time or resources to accomplish it.  It pains me to leave my country, but unfortunately my life is going on and I can’t wait any longer for the “bright future” I was promised as a child.  This is the best time of my life when I have the energy to work and accomplish projects and I don’t want all those hopes of doing something to be lost in waiting.

If you want to stay I respect your decision, but I do not see it, because they throw insults at me, “stateless,” “worm” or “traitor,” just because I have decided to make my life elsewhere.  I do not understand all the limitations for entering and leaving the country, these concepts of “final exit” or the confiscation of property from those who go.  I remember having heard as a young boy that the construction of this system is a voluntary thing, so I have every right to not want to participate.

At least I’m honest with what I want and I have not pretended for years and then defected during an official visit, as do many artists, athletes and officials, who until yesterday were swearing allegiance to the Revolution on television.  I only count on my raft, with my energies to take to the sea, with my ability to orient myself, with my youth, I do not want anything more than what I can earn with my effort.

I will return and I would like to know then that you’ve done with your life what I was unable to do with mine.

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