A Risky Route to Freedom
"I was seeing things in the water and heat. My mind was going," said Yunior Buceta Cañete, 28, who had been a welder in Cuba earning $8 a month. He found out in a phone call to Cuba that his wife had given birth to their first child while he was at sea; he said he hopes to get to Miami, then find a way to get his family there. "We risked a lot to get here, but at least we are free."
The group set off from Santa Cruz, on Cuba's southern coast, with little more than an antique compass and a 1953 map. Buceta said the little outboard quit three times, and each time the men coaxed it back to life. A plastic sack that once had carried beans served as their backup sail. As storms churned the water and rain fell hard into the open boat, one man decided to turn himself in on the Cayman Islands, less than halfway through the journey. The men let him off on a Cayman beach, where they assume he was caught and returned to Cuba.
Days later, the men landed in Roatan, where their battered boat rests in high grass outside Hernandez's home, stirring awe among the locals who come to hear their story. "We were not sure if it was Belize or Honduras," said Jorge Abel Sosa Reina, a fisherman who served as chief navigator, talking about the moment when they saw land and Hernandez. Sosa moved toward land first, planning to wave on the others if it turned out they had miscalculated and were in Belize. That way, perhaps only he would be detained and returned to Cuba and the others could keep going. Sosa said he nearly fainted with relief when Hernandez told him he was in Honduras: "My whole body wanted to fold, collapse. I was so relieved." Sosa said he had been inspired to make the trip by his brother, who made it to Honduras in November and now lives in Miami with his two other brothers. Sosa said he hoped to join them.
Reaching Roatan was especially sweet for history professor Nicolas Gonzalez Verona, 51, the oldest on the boat. He said he had tried to escape Cuba in 1994 but the Cuban Coast Guard rammed his vessel and sank it. He paid a fine to avoid prison and spent the next decade waiting to try again. Once at sea, Gonzalez said he passed the time praying.
Sick of the Sea
In La Ceiba, Machado and the three others from his group are living in a fire station.
Machado found a job upholstering furniture three days after arriving and said he worries constantly about his wife and two daughters back in Cuba. He said he would never allow his family to take the risk he did on the ocean. After one of the men's two small motors died, they lashed their two rafts together and kept going, fighting howling waves and the smell of spilled gasoline and vomit.
He said their troubles got worse when they smashed up against rocks on the shore of the Cayman Islands. They were caught, locked up and told they would be returned to Cuba. After a few days, their relatives from Spain and the United States arrived. One of the men was allowed to fly to Spain, and the American relatives paid bribes to get the eight others freed after 28 days in jail. They also paid $10,000 to a smuggler to carry the men the rest of the way to Honduras.
"It was a miracle," Machado said. "We had seconds' notice that we were leaving. We just ran out of jail."
They set off in the smugglers' 30-foot boat the first week of June. Before dawn on their fifth day at sea, Machado said, the smugglers suddenly announced that they were just off the Honduran coast and that the Cubans should jump.
"Go! Swim!" the men said and sped off.
After a half-hour of swimming, with Machado dragging his nephew who did not know how to swim, the Cubans reached a remote part of Honduras known as Gracias a Dios, or "Thanks to God."
A local woman who found the shivering Cubans gave them food and dry clothes, and they soon hopped a cargo boat heading for La Ceiba, Honduras's third-largest city. After their ordeal, Machado said, none of them can stand to look out the fire station window at the sea. "Cubans love the beach and the sea," he said. "But I have had enough of the sea for a long, long time."
© 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.