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.
"I was seeing things in the water and heat. My mind was going," said Yunior Buceta Canete, 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."