By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By Frank Owen
By Allie Conti
Earlier reports that the Cuban coast guard had relaxed its efforts to snare rafters fleeing the island have been replaced by stories of frequent patrols and harsh penalties for those caught. "Things have changed with the coast guard," says balsero Matos Rodriguez. "Once they realized people were aware they weren't looking, they started cracking down again."
Along with three companions, Victor Manuel Cintra Jardines, a 30-year-old Havana resident who worked as an electrician in the harbor, surveyed the coast near the Cuban capital for three months, noting the movements of coast guard patrols before selecting as a launching point an abandoned fish house in the western suburb of Miramar. "We pretended we were fishing all up and down the coast - in Cojimar, Habana del Este, Triton - and watched to see where the [truck-mounted] spotlights passed by along the coast, because those are the ones you have to worry about," Jardines says from the comparative comfort of a wood-paneled interview room at the Krome detention center.
The men fashioned a raft from three inner tubes, which they individually wrapped in canvas and tied in a row. Helping to hold the raft together were square wooden frames on top and bottom, and the lower frame was criss-crossed with wire to keep out the sharks.
They decided to leave on May 30. "One guy stayed in the house where we had the inner tubes while another guy drove over the truck from work," Jardines says in slow, thoughtful Spanish, as Omar Simon Solano, the brother of Jardines's girlfriend and one of his three companions on the voyage, leans over and strains to hear above the din of a dozen other balseros dressed in Krome-issue orange jail clothes. "They loaded up the tubes, passed by the Servicentro [gas station] and filled them up with air. The problem was that the sky was still light, it was too early. So I said to drive somewhere and park, because you can't be driving around at night - it's forbidden by the government. They had everything in back, covered up.
"When nine o'clock came, everyone was watching Roque Santeiro, a Brazilian soap opera that's very popular in Cuba, and the streets were deserted. We took advantage of it. The one guy brought the truck back to the fish house and we took everything out and put it together in maybe fifteen minutes."
They took only water, salt tablets, some chicken they ate the first day, and a bag of hamburgers from a Cuban fast-food chain popularly known as McCastro's. The burgers were soaked from the onset and were thrown away. Amid the anxiety of being discovered in the dash for the sea, they forgot most of the drinking water on shore. Unlike Selis and de Jongh, Jardines and his companions knew very little about the weather and the currents. They simply hoped that the wind, along with the oars they brought with them, would be enough to propel their craft to Florida.
"We thought it might rain, and that would be better because there wouldn't be fishermen," says Jardines. "The fishermen will turn you in if they see you. But it didn't rain. If I had to do it again, I wouldn't do it," he admits, lowering his baggy orange pants to show the blisters and scars where his lower back and buttocks were rubbed raw by the rubber tubes. They had considered the dangers, he says, but were foolish to take so many risks with so little preparation. "The weather was good - we had no storms or rain - but it was terrible. Our water was gone almost immediately. Since we weren't used to rowing, we drank it all.
"Sometimes you would see phantoms, visions, spirits on the water," he continues. "Once I saw a plant and said, `Hey, let's tie up the raft there.' And I saw an army marching across the water toward us, like across a desert. It seemed we would row and move ahead, and then the current would take us back, or we would just be moving in circles. And the sharks were everywhere." One shark bit the edge of the lower wooden frame, tearing through the canvas covering one of the inner tubes. "We were just watching the sharks circling, slapping at them with the oars," Jardines says, "and one of us said,`I can't believe this is our destiny. After all we've been through, I can't believe this is how we are going to end." Later, as they drifted lazily on calm seas, a swordfish surfaced in pursuit of prey and headed directly toward the tubes. At the last second, as the men scrambled in panic, the swordfish dove deep and disappeared.
On June 2, after nearly three days at sea, the four were spotted by a fishing boat, which radioed the Coast Guard. With all their food and water gone, they had subsisted on salt tablets. "When the Coast Guard picked us up, I cried because I was saved," Jardines says. "We thought we were dead. I would not recommend that anyone try. If they can find another way, they should find it. Seeing the Coast Guard for me was like being reborn. It was the greatest thing in my life."