To leave or stay? It hinges on hunger SPECIAL REPORT: INSIDE CASTRO'S CUBA

September 07, 1994|By John M. McClintock | John M. McClintock,SUN STAFF WRITER

HAVANA -- The Soviet-built, Zhuk fast-attack boat bore down on the raft with its tiny black sails bobbing in 3-foot seas six miles off Havana -- halfway to freedom.

The nine people aboard were resigned to their fate. The Cuban patrol boat could put an end to their journey. A girl aboard the raft would be young enough to warrant seizing the craft, because young children have been forbidden from joining the exodus from Cuba.

Orlando Mendez clung to the crude tiller. He was a distinguished-looking man in his early 50s. He checked his compass. Not once did he turn to see the fast-approaching patrol craft that could end his escape from hopelessness.

His gaze was fixed on the horizon and the magic 12-mile limit beyond which a U.S. Coast Guard cutter might take him to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Or the raft might ride the current that sweeps past South Florida. But then, a storm might overwhelm them, drinking water might run out, and there were always sharks.

The girl pushed herself deeper in the bottom of the raft. Only her bright fearful eyes could be seen. A small rabbit hidden in the grass. She was perhaps 8 years old.

The patrol boat's exhausts bubbled in the water as the Cuban Border Guards inspected the raft from 50 yards away. Mr. Mendez refused to look at it. The boat was behind him, its powerful diesels growling. His young crew paddled furiously with homemade oars, trying to turn the unwieldy craft of inner tubes to keep the wind in its two sails.

They had launched at 1 a.m. Wednesday from Santa Fe beach on the outskirts of Havana. It was now 3.30 p.m., but no one was keeping time. The glint of binoculars could be seen from the bridge of the patrol boat.

Mr. Mendez's determination seemed to break slightly as the patrol boat roared to life, gingerly skirting the raft, and sped into the gray distance. They were safe for the moment. The girl came out from her hiding place and shook her long blond hair. Her parents and grandfather were aboard. Three generations riding a single roll of the dice.

How would they feel if their perilous bid for freedom ended with years of internment at Guantanamo? What if there was no happy ending in Florida?

"Hey, I'd go to Haiti," said a young oarsman. "Anything is better than what's back there."

What's back there is zip, a chance to buy a cheap Chinese bicycle, a 15-year-old sister turning tricks for tourists to stay alive. Rice and beans. Doctors, lawyers, engineers out of work. In the tough Stalinist apartment buildings of Cojimar, Regla and Boyeros, thousands assemble the elements of escape. Inner tubes, steel drums, sealed lengths of pipe. Plastic bottles of water. Canned food. Wood for oars. A compass. And welding equipment, cable and rope to put it all together.

They are out of hope. The revolution that rescued their fathers a generation ago has faded into political and economic bankruptcy. The Soviet patrons are gone. The confrontation between President Fidel Castro and Washington that played itself out in a nuclear showdown three decades ago now plays its endgame with the lives of people gripped by despair, searching for any way to subsist, or better, to get out.

On the beach at Cojimar, the Reina del Caribe, the "Caribbean Queen," is for sale. Free enterprise in Communist Cuba. A thousand bucks firm.

Oscar Sigueroa stumps around the raft like a used car salesman. "Nice eh?" he says. "Look, real steel on the bow," he says, giving it a thump. "She'll carry six easy. Inner tubes and foam blocks. Nothing is safer. Oars included."

He is standing on the tar-slimed rocks on the beach at Cojimar. He is standing on one leg, the other having been shot off by the Cuban coast guard when he tried rafting to freedom last year, before Fidel Castro reversed the ban on fleeing the country. "They were very nice about it; I could have bled to death. And we have free medical care. Even the crutches are free."

It was Monday, and Mr. Sigueroa was leaving two days hence on another raft. Since his mishap with the Cuban coast guard, the former law student has been thinking about nothing but the raft to get out. He helped design and build dozens of them. And now, with Fidel Castro officially looking the other way and the U.S. Coast Guard officially shortening freedom's trip to just 12 miles, "This is a can't-miss proposition."

'Nothing left to sell'

At the beaches where the rafts are launched a roar goes up from the watching crowd. One day it was Wilma Perez's turn. She had been arrested and imprisoned for five days for making a similar attempt last year. By God, she was going to make it this time, she said.

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