Rafters

Balseros and their makeshift rafts have become as much a symbol of Cuban culture as lechon, arroz con frijoles, and the Havana spleef

Blue-black clouds rumbled overhead as Leonardo Selis and Ricardo de Jongh sifted through the tattered sheets of canvas, torn burlap sacks, half-filled inner tubes, and rusted iron pipe strewn about the front yard of a house in a working-class West Dade neighborhood. Against the side of the small house, three inner tubes, each tightly bound in canvas, bulged inside a frame of cast-iron pipes that resembled a Tinker Toy rowboat.

The smallish, 29-year-old de Jongh poked a tennis shoe at a cracked skeleton of wooden beams. A brown canvas sail on a tent-pole mast jutted upward from the frame, and the black mass of a deflated Soviet truck inner tube was jumbled underneath. Four people crossed the Florida Straits from Cuba on this raft, one of countless homemade vessels to have made the voyage in the years since Fidel Castro took power.

"Obviously this one made it," de Jongh murmured, pulling a camera from his shoulder bag. "But you wouldn't get me into this one. Not on your life. Too fragile. Do you know what the waves are like out there? They could break this in half just like that. I never would have trusted it. Just too fragile." Human reminders of the treacherous passage - sunglasses, salt-encrusted T-shirts and shoes, cans of Danish beef sausage and baby food, torn carry-on bags and backpacks, a bottle of aspirin, a blue plastic laundry detergent bottle with a rag stuffed in its spout, used as a water jug - were scattered throughout the yard. The rumble of thunder grew nearer, louder, more insistent.

"I would feel a lot more confident in one of those," said Selis, an animated 34-year-old man of medium build with flecks of silver highlighting jet-black hair. Hopping from foot to foot, he jabbed a finger in the direction of two elaborately constructed rafts that looked like rowboats. "You could go around the world in one of those." A thin slab of wood nailed across the bow of one raft bore the scrawled name, La Milagrosa. The Miraculous.

De Jongh walked quietly over to a pile of orange-and-blue air mattresses. He stooped, fingered the worn, deflated vinyl, snapped a picture. "These people came in this? These guys were just outrageous. Our raft was pretty small, but this is incredible." The pair finally dashed for the nearby porch as the clouds opened up, releasing fat drops that pelted the black rubber of the rafts and slowly soaked the canvas and burlap.

Eastern Europe had the Iron Curtain, China has the bamboo version. Cuba's barrier is more tangible and foreboding - an expanse of open ocean, with sudden storms and scorching sun, voracious sharks and mountainous swells. Despite the dangers and the ever-present fear that challenging the elements might lead to capture and an extended stay in a Cuban prison, the balseros and their makeshift rafts have become as much a symbol of Cuban culture as lechon, arroz con frijoles, and the Havana spleef. This year alone, nearly 1200 people, from young children to grandparents, have reached Florida in a 90-mile leap of faith.

A worsening economic situation and continued political repression are the reasons most often given for fleeing. Rafts built of inner tubes reinforced with canvas, plastic, wood, and cast-iron pipe are the crafts of choice for accomplishing that goal. Some, like the air mattresses, are more unorthodox. Or like the block of Styrofoam with a seat hole carved out and oars strapped to the sides, used by 21-year-old Lazaro Colome Sandoval, who crossed the bow of Queen Elizabeth's cruising yacht Britannia near Sombrero Key in May. Or like the box springs strapped to an air mattress. Or the half of a 55-gallon oil drum with a wood-and-Styrofoam frame. Or the camper top from an Ebro mini-bus strapped to Fiberglas pontoons.

"I would say I have 125 of these rafts and boats, and every single one of them is unique," says Humberto Sanchez, a Miami mechanic who hopes to create a museum to house the rafts he has collected from the U.S. Coast Guard. For the time being he stores the relics at his house, on land provided by friends, and in a neighbor's yard. "You might see some similar designs, but every one is different. Every single one has its own details and its own ingenuity." For Cubans long accustomed to cannibalizing spare parts in order to keep everything from kitchen appliances to 1950s-era cars functioning, the process of building a raft and planning an escape is not an abstract one. The creativity involved in finding the parts and putting them together is a natural outgrowth of making do in day-to-day life.

A red booth at a South Miami chicken restaurant filled with teen-agers and tourists is an incongruous place to recount the years of step-by-step planning that culminated in a midnight float from Cuba. Aside from the periodic and insistent whack! from the knife of a Jamaican chef hacking apart chicken breasts, the setting lacks drama. The story, told by Selis in machine-gun bursts of Spanish with quiet confirmations from de Jongh, does not.

"We invented whatever contraption there was to come over with, from a boat to an inflatable catamaran to making a raft with truck inner tubes and boards," says Selis. "We even tried to think of a way to put my Fiat on pontoons and attach a propeller to the motor. Finally we left in a beach raft. It was just that we had decided to leave and we were going to leave however we could."

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