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The Ordeal of a Cuban Rafter

The Ordeal of a Cuban Rafter
May 9, 2016
By Ivett de las Mercedes

HAVANA TIMES — On Friday, March 4, a group of twenty-seven young Cubans
set out from Bahia Honda, in the province of Artemisa, headed for the
United States. They had built their vessel – approximately six meters
long – together. They carried water, food and a big bag of hope.

The next day, the engine broke down and they spent two agonizing weeks
out at sea. The dream of a better future left them. 29-year-old Jorge
Mendoza Correa, who lives in Candelaria, was one of the young men on the
raft. He tells us of his experiences.

Jorge Mendoza Correa: We were twenty-five miles from Tortuga Key when
the engine broke. It was overheating and we didn’t have a large enough
container to pour water on it and cool it down. As we were making good
progress and hadn’t run into any obstacles, we decided to use the water
in the tanks we took with us in the engine. I think we were
overconfident and didn’t think to leave some for us. Then we were
stranded out at sea. Cargo boats and planes went past us, some
kilometers away, and no one would rescue us, even though we made signals
and yelled. We became more and more desperate as the days passed. There
were huge waves, the sun was scorching hot.

HT: Did you take anything with you for the sun and the cold?

JMC: We were protected, but one begins to take things off because
they’re bothersome and they start hurting your skin. During the day, you
have to put the sweaters out to dry so you can use them to protect
yourself from the cold at night. You also have to be careful they don’t
fly off in strong winds.

HT: You were sitting the whole time? How did you sleep?

JMC: We had lost a stabilizer, something that keeps the vessel from
tipping over or sinking, so we had to balance the weight on board. Some
were on one side and the rest on the other. You couldn’t stand, because
that would have made the vessel tip. We were constantly throwing water
out. We slept like that, in an uncomfortable position. Whenever we’d
fall asleep, a wave would come along and soak us. We often threw water
on ourselves to cool off a bit, and we’d see the sharks. They never
attacked us. We had dolphins next to us often.

HT: What happened when you ran out of food?

JMC: After six days at sea, we had run out of food and used up all the
water in the containers. Someone had the idea of drinking our own urine,
someone else said it was harmful, that it has ammonia. I was the first
to do that. I urinated, filtered the pee with a sweater. Drinking that
was horrible, but you get used to it. What also saved us were the
remoras. We’d eat them raw. There was a nurse among us that would draw
blood, and we’d drink that. We each had our own syringe.

My nephew was with us and taking care of him was one of things that kept
me strong. I couldn’t let anything happen to him. My brother-in-law had
also come. We became one family.

HT: On a stranded raft, without water or food and the sun beating down
on you, anything can happen. The twenty-six persons on board knew each
other, you planned the voyage together. How did you deal with your losses?

JMC: It was painful. We keep constant watch to make sure no one drank
salt water or wet their lips when they threw water on them to cool off.
If that happened, you’d get killer diarrhea. We faced very difficult
moments. The first was when one of the women started to hallucinate. She
became very aggressive, irritated. She wasn’t herself. The next day, she
apologized, but I noticed she was drinking cologne. She told me it
refreshed her. At noon, she fainted. We carried her, tried to wake her
up, but she was gone. Her face had changed. Her heart was beating more
slowly and she began to contract. I told the others I couldn’t feel her
pulse. The nurse confirmed she had passed away. We decided to leave her
on the raft, covered, hoping a ship would rescue us and we’d be able to
take the body back to land. As the hours passed, the corpse began to
decompose. It was too hot out and the body began bleeding everywhere. We
had to throw the body overboard to avoid the spread of an infection or
epidemic.

There was another kid from San Cristobal, from the Marti neighborhood,
to be specific. He was very weak the moment we set sail. He was vomiting
a lot and didn’t want to eat. When he became delirious, we knew he must
have drunk salt water at one point. He would call out to his mother and
daughter. He grew very pale and started to contract. We knew he wouldn’t
be around long.

The third had burnt his feet and they were destroyed. I had never seen
flesh like that. He would complain about the pain a lot. He agonized
till death. The day before the rescue six more people died. Do you know
what it’s like to lose six people you know in a day? Nine died in total.
If the cruiser hadn’t rescued us, no one would have been left alive. I
don’t think I’ll ever forget those days.

HT: Were you afraid? What was going through your mind?

JMC: I thought I would die also. We were stranded somewhere where you
couldn’t see anything, neither planes nor cargo ships, for several days.
The GPS stopped working because the batteries got wet. One day, we
smelled a swamp. We were probably close to a key, but the current drags
you along. We didn’t have anything to light the way with, the lighters
had also gotten wet.

I thought of those who died, people I’d known since childhood, and about
how their relatives would react. Everyone probably thought we were dead
after so many days out at sea. I would think of my son, my mother, my
hopes, about what would happen in a few hours’ time. I couldn’t cry, I
don’t know why. The others prayed, especially the two women. Sores
formed on my buttocks from so much sitting. I also got sores on my legs.
I didn’t even have the strength to scoop water out of the raft. There
was unbearable silence all around. The sea is terrible, especially at
night, when it’s cold. Sometimes, you can’t take it. At first, we would
huddle, but, as days passed, we couldn’t even touch one another because
of the sores and the burns. During storms, there were waves as high as
twelve meters. There was tension trying to keep the raft balanced, as we
didn’t have the stabilizer. We had to take some planks from the raft to
use as rows and it didn’t work. The currents were too strong.

HT: What happened when you saw the cruiser?

JMC: We saw the cruiser in the distance. It was the early morning of
March 18. We planned not to yell or signal at it until it was close, as
that hadn’t worked previously. We tried to get as close as possible, we
started to yell and make signals using the tanks. The cruiser moved away
a bit and suddenly lit us up with floodlight. But it took some time to
approach us, perhaps it was waiting for an order. The cruiser security
came and we told them some of us were ill. They asked us if we wanted
water or if we wanted to be rescued. We asked to be rescued. We got on
in groups of four until all eighteen of us were safe. The cruiser was
coming from Tampa, it was called the Royal Caribe. I am very grateful
for their attentions and care, and the rescue most of all. We couldn’t
have survived another day.

HT: You couldn’t have even gone on with water?

JMC: We were very weak. We had sailed past Florida. We couldn’t have
endured another day under the sun.

HT: What happened on board the cruiser?

JMC: We were put in wheelchairs. A Spanish nurse took our blood
pressure. We drank water and energy drinks. We couldn’t start eating all
of a sudden, only fruit and light meals. They also gave us clothing and
shoes. We spent a whole day in the cruise ship. They treated us
magnificently, but the experience was dampened by sadness. In total, two
women and seven men had died.

HT: What happened after the rescue?

JMC: The cruiser left us in Cozumel, Mexico. The marines put us on a
speedboat and we reached Puerto Ventura in 45 minutes. Then, there was a
four-hour journey to Quintana Roo, accompanied by immigration officials.
They received us there. The nurse from the immigration center saw us and
gave us medication. No one spoke to us about the law. We had arrived on
Saturday, March 19, and, on Tuesday the 22nd, they explained they had to
send out some information with our photos and IDs to the Cuban
consulate, then wait fifteen working days.

During that time, the Cuban consulate had to decide whether it would
allow us to continue towards the United States or repatriate us. If
there’s no reply, immigration sends out the information again and
there’s a 45-day waiting period. In the event the consulate does not
reply within 60 days, they let you go. We were hoping they would let us
continue on our way. We were in a place that felt like a prison, even
though they make a point of telling you you’re not imprisoned, but under
protection. Four of us were taken to the hospital. One had anesthesia
administered to him for the treatment of his burns and the sores on his
feet. He was able to continue on his way and has already made it to the
United States. He was the only one who made it.

HT: After that whole ordeal, what was it like to know you were going
back to Cuba?

JMC: I clung to hope till the last moment. I don’t have relatives in the
United States that could have help me pay for a lawyer, but we were
confident they would let us go.

At eleven at night on March 23, we had heard rumors they were sending us
back to Cuba, and so it was. It was a five-hour journey from Quintana
Roo to Kumal, and from there to Cancun, all under maximum security.

We left on the first flight, at 7 am. When we arrived at the airport
here, State Security came and made us fill out some forms. Then, they
did some tests and told us we would be taken to Valle Grande. We spent
five days there. They explained to us we weren’t prisoners. When they
interviewed us, they questioned our testimony. They blamed us for the
deaths. It was very painful for me to throw those people overboard, we
knew them all, we loved them, we had grown up together. Then, we had the
bitter experience of having to deliver only some of their clothes to
their families.

After we spent those five days at Valle Grande, they interrogated two of
us again. On the 29th, they put us on a bus and dropped us off at the
Candelaria highway.

HT: Would you do it again?

JMC: Perhaps. I’ve never had any political problems. I have a Bachelor’s
in Education. I earned 500 pesos (around 20 USD) a month, which isn’t
enough for anything.

The psychological impact has been huge. I can’t sleep remembering what
happened, the agony, the hunger, the despair. When I meet with a
relative of someone who died, they immediately ask me what happened and,
even though one tries to conceal some details, my words betray me.

I believe we deserved to make it, because of everything we went through.
When I boarded the plane back to Cuba, my plans went to hell. I was dead
inside. Before I left, I was working as a chemistry teacher at a school.
Now, I don’t even have that and I have to maintain my six-year-old kid.
If I ever try again, I have to be more prepared. It’s no easy task. You
put your life at risk.

Source: The Ordeal of a Cuban Rafter – Havana Times.org –
www.havanatimes.org/?p=118626

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