Family lands in time to beat deadline

August 20, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Sun Staff Correspondent

KEY WEST, Fla. -- Jose Ramon Ortega and his family got off their raft of three tire tubes, four pieces of two-by-four, a sheet of plywood, all held together by a knotted rope, just in time to hear President Clinton say there would be no more like them.

With his wife, three stepsons, a stepdaughter and his pet dog, Honey, the 52-year-old truck driver was among the last group of Cuban refugees automatically allowed into the United States.

No sooner were they admitted yesterday, than Mr. Clinton closed the door that had been open to Cuban refugees like them for almost 30 years under a 1966 law.

His face scorched by two days on the water, Mr. Ortega, a wiry figure in a newly acquired T-shirt emblazoned "Las Vegas -- Gambling Capital of the World," listened at the Cuban Refugee Center here to Mr. Clinton announce on television that Cubans would now be processed like other refugees.

Mr. Ortega's reaction: "I feel very strongly that instead of sending Cuban people back to Cuba, he should send them to another free country.

"Once they leave Cuba, people on the waters automatically lose everything, their house, everything. When they go back, they will be penalized for their action."

Even before the family set sail, the house in which they had lived since 1956 was ransacked by government officials, he said.

The reason: an attempt to leave by boat on Sunday was blocked by Cuban troops. Mr. Ortega and his family returned home to find the house entered and their possessions stolen or ruined.

For weeks they had been amassing the material for their raft, some of it stolen, some bought on the black market. It was half-finished and hidden in a friend's garden.

After Sunday's failed effort to leave in a boat, they decided on Monday to finish the raft and make another attempt to put to sea.

They got the nod from a friendly official that a good time to leave would be noon Tuesday. They carried their raft to the beach, only to find Cuban soldiers and police there.

The officers started to shoot in the air, forcing the family and a group of other rafters back to the beach from the water. Suddenly, they told them all to get in their flimsy rafts.

"I thought they were going to destroy the raft, and then they decided not to do it," said Mr. Ortega. "We didn't have a single weapon to defend ourselves. The whole country was outside, hoping like us to get into something to come over here.

"All this commotion was just to make us scared, because after it was over it became very obvious that the government was letting us go without any problem."

Mr. Ortega's wife, Barbara Santana Hoez, 52, wept as she told how her eldest son, Mario, 34, had refused to join the family on its perilous voyage, which started on the beach at Mariel, a port 25 miles east of Havana.

"He didn't want to put into the high seas with the three children," she said. "One is just a couple of months old, and he couldn't bear to risk losing his children to the sea."

Her three other sons, Miguel, 26, a pest exterminator, Carlo, 24, a warehouse worker, Alexis, 23, a mechanic, and her daughter, Miriam, 30, a medical technician, were with them for the journey.

"We found ourselves without food and water, without hope," she said. "We just sat there and we left it to God to decide."

Her worst moment was when a plane circled overhead. She feared it was Cuban and might seek to fly low over them to whip up the water and sink them.

Instead, it was one of the Cuban emigre pilots flying patrols out of Florida to locate the Cuban rafts on the seas and report their positions to the U.S. Coast Guard.

On Thursday, the Coast Guard picked up 401 Cuban boat people, bringing the total for this month to nearly 3,000. The Ortega family was among them.

They were brought to Key West and released at lunchtime, in time for Mr. Clinton's announcement of the new policy.

All boat people picked up yesterday were to be taken for processing to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo, Cuba.

Why did Mrs. Santana and her family decide to leave the island? "All I want to breathe is fresh air, and be able to express the things that for so many years we have been forbidden to express," she said.

"If I wanted to sit under a tree, I couldn't because the government would ask me what I am doing there and take me away."

As they waited impatiently last night for relatives in Miami to pick them up, they had one regret: The friend who helped build and hide their raft, and who sailed with them apparently did not beat the Clinton policy deadline.

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