The risky route to freedom
- (Since the Honduran government is allied with the US
government, and was the sponsor of the resolution
against Cuba at the UN Human Rights Commission in
Geneva this year, it would be difficult for Cubans to
leave Honduras for the United States claiming they
fear "political persecution" in Honduras.
("Once rafters reach Honduras, their relatives in
Miami often send them money. Some try to find legal
ways into the United States, but many set off
through Guatemala and Mexico to try to cross
the border illegally, they said.")
The risky route to freedom
Cubans seeking US via Honduras
By Mary Jordan, Washington Post
August 1, 2004
LA CEIBA, Honduras -- Nine rafters slipped out of Cuba on
May 3, guided by a full moon and buoyed by hope and ocean
currents. After two days at sea, in the black and cold of 2
a.m., a screw shook loose from their old outboard and it
sputtered to a stop. As the screw plunged into the
shark-filled depths, the rafter's spirits sank with it.
''That was the moment I thought we were going to die," said
Luis Machado Hernandez, 42, a Cuban hospital manager who
said he was fleeing because it is unbearable to exist on
$10 a month in a place where a pair of child's shoes costs
three times that much. But Machado and the others kept
going, and for the next five weeks their remarkable voyage
twisted and turned on the kindness and greed of strangers.
A day after their engine failed, the rafters washed up on
the Cayman Islands and were locked up with murderers for a
month. There, as they recalled later, they bribed
themselves free and set off again into the enormous waves.
Finally, on June 5, they landed in this Central American
country, whose welcoming immigration policies have made it
the most popular new haven among Cuban refugees.
''The Honduran people know what the Cubans are suffering,
that they are being repressed, and that they don't have
liberties," said Ramon Romero, Honduras's director of
immigration, who said his country welcomed Cuban boat
people and would never return them to Fidel Castro, now 45
years at the helm of the communist island.
Far more Cubans attempt the 90-mile trip to Florida than
the risky 500-mile voyage to Honduras. But because most get
caught by Cuban authorities or the US Coast Guard in the
heavily patrolled waters off Florida, an increasing number
desperate to flee Cuba's miserable economic conditions are
pointing their rafts toward Honduras, one of the poorest
countries in the hemisphere. Romero said at least 100
Cubans came to Honduran shores last year, more than twice
the number in 2002. As the numbers keep increasing, he
said, Honduras is recruiting families to take them in.
Rafters interviewed in Honduras said word had spread that
Honduras is a safer bet than Cuba's other neighbors,
including Belize, Mexico, and the Cayman Islands, which
routinely return the refugees to their homeland.
Machado estimated that at least one boat a day is setting
off from Cuba for Honduras. Many of those turn back when
motors and nerves break down on the high seas, he said.
''And no doubt some don't make it," he added, describing
how easily makeshift boats can be blown off course and
swallowed by the Caribbean.
Rafters said going to Honduras makes more sense than taking
a chance with the United States' ''wet-foot, dry-foot"
policy, under which Cubans who make it to US soil are free
to seek political asylum but those caught offshore are
returned to Cuba. Sometimes Cubans win the race against the
Coast Guard, as did the wife and two daughters of New York
Yankees pitcher Jose Contreras, who reached an island off
Florida last month after a three-hour chase. But more
often, they do not: The Coast Guard said it had caught and
returned about 2,100 Cubans since the beginning of last
year after finding them on rafts, rickety boats, even
riding in a floating 1951 Chevrolet pickup.
Once rafters reach Honduras, their relatives in Miami often
send them money. Some try to find legal ways into the
United States, but many set off through Guatemala and
Mexico to try to cross the border illegally, they said.
Thirty miles from where Machado is living, another group of
Cuban rafters is being cared for by Honduran families.
Lelis Arnulfo Hernandez, a gardener on the island of
Roatan, said he was startled one day late last month when
he found seven haggard Cubans stumbling out of a 12-foot
boat that looked like an old fiberglass bathtub. They had
spent seven days and eight nights at sea; all were
dehydrated, and some were hallucinating. They had run out
of food, water, and fuel by the time they washed ashore
near Hernandez's one-room home on the waterfront.
''One of them asked me, 'Is this Honduras?' And when I said
yes, you couldn't believe how happy he was," said
Hernandez, who then welcomed them into his wooden home,
gave them food and hot coffee, and took the ragged men to
see a doctor.
C Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company