Whole Cuban families risk the sea and sharks

August 21, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Sun Staff Correspondent

KEY WEST, Fla. -- From the cockpit of his Cessna 310, Lorenzo Orestes is struck by two things about the Cuban boat people he sees floating in the Florida Straits below: the flimsiness of their rafts and the number of family groups on them.

Those are the key differences between the latest exodus from the Communist island and previous migrations.

Ordinary, everyday Cubans, professionals, tradesmen, their wives and children, even grandparents, are risking their lives on the deep blue waters with the sharks down there. It is not an adventure for the young, the male, and healthy. The oldest arrival has been a 91-year-old woman.

Last Thursday morning, Mr. Orestes counted 108 Cubans bobbing on calm seas. In the afternoon he saw another 85. He reported their positions to the U.S. Coast Guard. They were saved.

It is not always so easy.

"One day, I saw a little raft with 15 people on board," says the Cuban emigre, who now flies routine patrols searching for rafters. "The seas were terrible. They were sinking. They were all going to die."

Lorenzo Orestes knows all about the dangers of getting your family out of Cuba. In 1991, a Cuban fighter pilot, he flew his MiG-23 to the naval air station in Key West. Twenty-one months later, his efforts to get permission for his wife and children to join him blocked by Fidel Castro, he flew under Cuban radar in the same Cessna 310 he flies today, landed briefly on a busy highway, picked up his family and brought them to freedom.

Now he is trying to help others escape. On one raft he spotted a young doctor, his psychologist wife, and their two small children. Later, when he met them on land, he asked the doctor: "Are you crazy, man? Why did you take to the sea?"

He recalls the man's reply: "In Cuba you are not allowed to work, you are not allowed to participate in solving the problems in the country. The situation is getting worse and worse.

"I had three options. The first was to die in Cuba. The second was to die in the sea. The third was to get to America."

When Elkis Drago reached America last week, he bumped straight into his uncle, Israel Drago, a "Marielisto," a veteran of the last major flood of refugees from the Cuban port of Mariel in 1980.

Israel Drago now runs a small restaurant, opposite the Cuban Refugee Center here, the first encounter with American society for most Cubans emigres.

The last time Israel Drago had seen his nephew was just before he made his own way over here 14 years ago. Now, in front of him stood a young man, too emotional to speak. "He looked worse for being in the raft," said Israel Drago. "But I recognized him. He was happy, but he couldn't talk.

'Everyone wants to come'

"I asked, 'How is the family?' He finally said 'Everyone is good. Everyone wants to come here.' "

How Israel and Elkis Drago arrived here 14 years apart and in contrasting fashion is a tale of two times.

In 1980, when Castro last allowed Cubans to leave, hundreds of Cuban emigres were permitted to sail from Florida to Cuba to pick up their families and others. Israel Drago came over with more than 300 refugees on a shrimp boat out of Miami.

When Elkis Drago came over last week, he and 10 others were clinging to a raft of planks tied to inner tubes wrapped in sacking.

The reason for the differing degrees of danger: In 1980, the Castro regime sanctioned the organized boatlift. Now, it is allowing the Cubans to leave but is not providing any help or facilities.

In 1980, then-President Jimmy Carter accepted the exodus, to his eventual political detriment. Now, the Clinton administration, trying to hold down the numbers, has threatened to prosecute any Americans who attempt to organize a sealift and has reversed a policy that allowed automatic right of entry to Cubans.

In the Mariel boatlift, 125,266 Cubans came here between April 21 and Sept, 29, 1980. Mr. Castro used the boat lift to export many of his country's criminals and mental patients to the United States. At its peak, more than 6,000 Cubans were arriving daily.

In the latest surge, more than 8,000 rafters have been picked up this year, more than 2,000 in the past week.

The influx has brought appeals for federal emergency aid from Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles. Florida is estimated to have spent more than $1 billion resettling Cubans since the Mariel boatlift. Mr. Clinton, refusing emergency aid, last week announced a new policy, making it more difficult for Cubans to become legal residents.

Until the policy change, Cubans were automatically allowed legal entry into the U.S. as fugitives from communism. They were given a small stipend for 90 days, a work permit, temporary housing, and were eligible for Medicaid, food stamps and welfare for 90 days.

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