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

Once spotted, in many cases by pleasure or commercial boats, occasionally by Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue), a group of Cuban exile pilots who fly over the straits in leased and privately owned planes, balseros usually are picked up by the Coast Guard and turned over to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. They are transported to Krome, interviewed by INS officers, and their immigration proceedings are begun. Many refugees are also interviewed by the U.S. Department of Defense, which debriefs any rafters who have knowledge about the Cuban military.

With the exception of those being held for criminal activities, the rafters are released to one of two church umbrella organizations -- the Miami-based Church World Service and United States Catholic Conference. These groups either reunite the Cubans with stateside family or release them to a sponsoring church outside of Miami. Most rafters have been relocated to Texas, New Mexico, Ohio, California, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.

Balseros say they speak of their schemes to almost no one in Cuba for fear that family members or friends taken into confidence and left behind will be blamed for helping them to escape. Many also say they know of people who smuggle refugees out by boat. Others have knowledge of people who will prepare a raft or find a small boat for a fee. Selis and de Jongh tell a story - which they say is well known in Cuba - about a man who charged 5000 Cuban pesos to take people to the Keys in his boat. When he returned to Cuba after the trip, he told authorities that he had been hijacked, but later was arrested and sent to jail.

In July 1989, the Coast Guard seized a 35-foot Cuban lobster boat spotted dropping off ten people on Sand Key. The crew and their boat were released after claiming they had been hijacked by the refugees. "From time to time we have incidents like that and it's hard to determine for sure whether there is smuggling taking place," says Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Karonis, a spokesman for the Coast Guard. "But we're fairly certain there is some of that going on."

But rafters who have made it to Krome say few Cubans seek such services because of the pervasive fear that chivos - snitches - are everywhere. "In Cuba you never know who is going to turn you in," says Selis, "so you don't trust anyone."

Twenty-two-year-old Alexis Perez Herrera says he paid a man to help transport him and some friends to the coast with some inner tubes. When they reached the beach in Habana del Este, Cuban authorities were waiting. "It was the guy who drove the truck that turned us in," says Herrera, who spent nineteen months in a Cuban prison for trying to escape the island. When he was released in April, he immediately enlisted his nineteen-year-old brother Tomas, their cousin Rafael Fiallo Echevarria, and a friend to try again.

"We talked about it, and we decided to build a raft out of two tractor inner tubes with oars," says Tomas, his green eyes scanning the Krome interview room and focusing on a TV monitor at the far end of the room that shows a car leaving through the center's front gate. "Is that the way we'll leave here?" he asks. "We must have come in that way, but I don't remember because I was so tired. I can't wait until we go out that way."

A week before he left Cuba, Alexis says, he found four poles and some blocks of wood, which he took to a carpenter friend, who made some oars. "Then I found two inner tubes from a Soviet tractor - they were just full of patches - and I bought them for 50 pesos each. I had to tell the guy that I wanted to use them to fish."

He stored the goods in a hallway at his mother's house in Bauta, in southern Havana province. "My mother didn't want us to go, of course," says Alexis. "She was crying, begging us not to throw ourselves in the ocean. But imagine how things are there! We had to go. We filled one on Saturday and wrapped it in canvas to protect it from the sun and salt. On Sunday we filled the second one. That night we were in the water.

"A friend of ours who was a truck driver went to the shop where it was parked and told them the owner had sent him to pick it up," Alexis continues, speaking through a mouthful of missing front teeth. "He gave it to us, and we loaded the rafts in back and drove to the coast. But about five blocks from Mariel [the Cuban port town west of Havana made famous by the 1980 boat lift], the truck ran out of gas. We had to take everything out and drag it through a field."

By 3:00 a.m. on May 27, the foursome had launched the inner tubes, lashed loosely together, from a rocky stretch of coast known as El Elegen. "We were rushing so much the two loaves of bread we brought were soaked, so we threw them away. Then right away one of the inner tubes started leaking because we didn't check them," Alexis recalls. After twelve hours at sea, one of the tubes overturned and the four containers of water they had brought along were lost. They had no compass, no knowledge of the weather or currents, no double layer of clothes to protect them from the elements.

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