Thursday, September 25, 2014

Cuban rafters' secret journey from Camagüey to Key Biscayne took months of planning

Cuban rafters' secret journey from Camagüey to Key Biscayne took months
of planning
09/24/2014 5:43 PM 09/24/2014 6:46 PM

A group Cubans in the eastern city of Camagüey planned the secret voyage
from Cuba to Key Biscayne for two or three months.

They built a makeshift boat with water pipes, galvanized steel and zinc
plates and installed an old Soviet tractor engine in the back to make it go.

In the end, only nine rafters of an original group of 14 dared to make
the trip. They were at sea for 10 days, sometimes hiding in small
islands to avoid the U.S. Coast Guard. But all arrived safely, beaching
their vessel Tuesday on the sands in front of the multi-story Mar Azul
condominium in Key Biscayne.

René Morales, the 53-year-old captain of the makeshift boat, detailed
the perilous voyage during an impromptu news conference Wednesday
outside the offices of Church World Service, a refugee aid agency in
Doral. Morales and the other Key Biscayne rafters received assistance at
Church World Service after being released by the U.S. Border Patrol
early Wednesday.

Cuban migrants make midday landing on Key Biscayne
The Key Biscayne rafters are part of an increasing number of Cuban
migrants who have arrived in the United States by sea and land since Oct. 1.

According to the Border Patrol, at least 780 Cuban migrants have arrived
on South Florida beaches since the beginning of the fiscal year. In
fiscal year 2013, 359 Cuban migrants arrived in South Florida beaches.

In addition, the number of Cuban migrants who arrive via the Mexican
border is also increasing. More than 16,000 have arrived between Oct. 1
and Sept. 10 – some 4,300 more than in fiscal year 2013.

Of the nine rafters who arrived Tuesday in Key Biscayne, only Morales
was willing to discuss the voyage at length with reporters. Three other
rafters also appeared willing to talk but the driver of the van they
were in seemed to be in a hurry and prevented the Cubans from talking.
At most the three migrants were only able to express their happiness
about being in Miami. Three other rafters also spoke briefly to
reporters. All denied that their trip was a migrant-smuggling operation.

According to Morales, the voyage unfolded this way:

Two or three months ago, a group of neighbors, friends and relatives –
14 in all – in a neighborhood of Camagüey began planning the trip. They
assembled the boat with galvanized steel an zinc plates, and added the
engine from an old T-40 Soviet tractor and a sail.

They also secretly collected food and water for the trip. They hoarded
crackers, cake slices, cans of food and water bottles – enough to last
several days and sustain more than a dozen people. One day before
sailing, members of the group approached Morales because he was a
trained mariner. He had graduated from a maritime school in Cuba in 1980
and knew about navigation and how to operate boats.

Morales quickly agreed to travel with the group because he didn't have a
job and had been thinking about leaving the island for some time.

"I just didn't have the money to finance the trip myself," said Morales.
"I felt I had no future in Cuba. It's a place where you often have to
decide between buying food to eat or shoes to wear."

Using school geography textbooks, Morales plotted the route to Miami.
Ten days ago at 3 a.m., the group sailed from La Gloria Bay, on the
coast north of Camagüey city. By then, only nine men were aboard. Of the
original 14, seven dropped out at the last minute. Two others who joined
the group were added just before the boat left Cuba.

Morales did not steer the boat directly to Miami because he encountered
other vessels that he suspected were U.S. Coast Guard cutters. He evaded
those vessels by hiding the makeshift boat in the brush of small islands.

Except for one night when the sea became choppy, most of the time the
sea was calm. It wasn't until the group was close to Key Biscayne that
the boat almost encountered disaster. A large container ship came
barreling toward the makeshift boat on a collision course.

"I thought it was going to crash into us and swamp us," recalled Morales.

While recalling this episode, it was the only time Morales broke into
tears during the news conference.

"I'm sorry," he apologized. "But we were close to death."

At the time, the boat engine was off and the boat was traveling under sail.

"It was only by the grace of God that a strong wind came up and gave us
enough power to get out of the way," said Morales.

Shortly after that, the boat landed on the beach in front of the Mar
Azul condominium at 600 Grapetree Drive in Key Biscayne.

The group ran from the boat to the building.

"People in the windows high up in the apartments were screaming at us
saying 'Congratulations' and 'Welcome to the land of liberty'."

Source: Cuban rafters' secret journey from Camagüey to Key Biscayne took
months of planning | The Miami Herald -

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