A Risky Route to Freedom
Desperate Cubans Head For U.S. Via Honduras
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 16, 2004; Page A01
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, their 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 the unbearableness of existing 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, they 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 mountainous waves. Finally, on June 5, they landed in this Central American country, whose welcoming immigration policies have made it the hottest 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 rafters get caught by Cuban authorities or the U.S. 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. "Hondurans identify with them and want to help them whenever they can," Romero said.
Rafters interviewed in Honduras said word had spread that this country 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 U.S. soil are free to seek political asylum but those caught offshore are returned to Cuba. Sometimes Cubans win the race against the U.S. 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 and even riding 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 attempt to cross the border illegally, they said.
Machado said some in his group had already left Honduras for the United States. "I don't know if they are dead or alive or in a jail somewhere," he said. Machado and the three others with him said they were trying to figure out a safer way to Miami.
"In Miami, whatever job you want you can have," Machado said. "I'm ready to work hard. I might not make it this month, or in three months or next year. But I want to go."
A Similar Journey
Thirty miles from where Machado is now 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.
Two weeks after their arrival, three of the men had already left for Mexico, hoping to sneak across the U.S. border, where the desert and soaring temperatures claim many lives. The four who remained were interviewed outside Hernandez's house, their backs and legs still covered with rashes where the boat's fiberglass had rubbed them raw.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Cubans Nicolas Gonzalez Verona, 51, left, William Gonzalez Caņete, 36, Yunior Buceta Caņete, 28, and Jorge Abel Sosa Reina, 44, stand at the spot on the island of Roatan in Honduras where they came ashore last month.
(Mary Jordan -- The Washington Post)
_____Journey to Honduras_____
Map: Two groups of Cubans traveled by boat to La Ceiba, Honduras.