The Smuggler as Savior

Juan Garcia Pino was obeying a higher law when he rescued nineteen family members fleeing Cuba. But a more mundane law ruined everything.

None of the English-language stations responded to her calls, but both major Spanish-language channels ran reports of her travails, and those of Maria Elena. The segments were filled with heart-wrenching scenes sure to resonate with a huge segment of the Cuban community that has witnessed, often firsthand, the rescues, arrests, repatriations, and even deaths played out in the currents of the Florida Straits.

At the same time, Maria brought her cause before aides at the district office of U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who spoke to reporters and advocated merciful treatment for Juan. "I wanted [the Coast Guard] to let me speak to my husband," Maria says. "I didn't even know if they were ever going to let me see him." Diaz-Balart didn't meddle in Coast Guard matters, but he did send a letter on June 29 to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, making the somewhat irrelevant request that Reno halt any possible deportation proceedings and, if Juan faced charges, allow him to be tried in the United States "because of the obvious lack of due process in Communist Cuba."

Maria molded the TV coverage into several days of personal drama. She made sure the cameras caught her with her children and a half-dozen supporters picketing the Coast Guard station in Key West, waving signs she herself had lettered: "Justice For Juan Garcia" and "Would You Let Your Family Drown?"

Maria Elena, 34 years old, and her small daughter Daniela had been helicoptered directly from the Coast Guard cutter to a Key West hospital after the infant developed a high fever. At Maria's house a few days after their discharge from the hospital, Maria Elena talked with reporters as she sat, looking dazed, in a rocking chair, Daniela nestled against her dark T-shirt. The mother's high cheekbones were sunburned, and her blondish hair still seemed wind-whipped. "If my brother hadn't found us when he did, we all would have died," she sobbed into the cameras. "But it's my husband I'm worried about. No one can survive in Cuba. My family belongs to an opposition political party -- imagine how they're doing. And I have a child. I need help from my husband."

Maria Elena told an amazing story of launching a 26-foot boat (bought for the occasion and named Odalys after the sister of the buyer -- both of whom were also passengers) from the beach at Caibarien, northeast of the group's hometown of Santa Clara. This was on June 25. After two days at sea, the boat rammed into rocks and was taking on water. But on the morning of Saturday the 27th, they caught sight of an approaching vessel. "We thought it might be Brothers to the Rescue," Maria Elena said, referring to the Miami- based rescue organization that operates small airplanes over the Florida Straits. But incredibly, it was Juan in the Bayliner. "I give thanks every day," she said, one hand clutching the gold Virgen de la Caridad around her neck and smiling through copious tears, "for this true miracle."

When the cameras turned to Maria, she too was crying. The week before he left, Juan had been haunted by a premonition. He had the feeling his family in Cuba was going to try to leave. Then his aged grandmother called from Santa Clara with the news that confirmed his feeling. Frantic with worry, Juan took a boat -- the Why Not Too -- that a customer had left at his shop a few weeks earlier. At the time, their daughter, Janel, was just a week old and Maria was recovering from a cesarean section. "I was going to go with him, but he said, 'You're crazy, you just had a cesarean,'" Maria said. "Now I just don't know what's going to happen. My kids need their father. Especially our two-year-old." Josue, who has dark hair and opaque deep-set eyes like his father's, looked forlorn as he fidgeted with a rubber ball.

The television reports barely remarked on the incredible confluence of events that would have had to occur for the women's story to be true. But maybe they didn't have to point that out. Miami's exile community -- which knows intimately the lengths to which Cubans have gone to create new lives in the United States -- can cry in compassion while still recognizing that fabulous tales of escape and rescue often contain elements of invention. A Cuban man who himself immigrated to Miami four years ago (and who asked that his name not be used) said he assumes the account of divine intervention is a lie. "A lot of Cubans think they can do things like that because Americans are bobos," he said, "and will believe anything if they talk about how much they suffered in Cuba."

"There's a great, great market right now for smuggling Cubans in, and everyone knows it," explains Miami immigration lawyer Grisel Ibarra, who has no connection to Juan's case. "We are the greatest bullshit artists. If this man [Juan] came to the United States five or six years ago, he was raised in Cuba, and he knows exactly what bullshit to pull.

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