20 years ago, 35,000 'balseros' fled Castro's Cuba on anything that would float

In this Aug. 24, 1994, file photo, more than one hundred Cuban refugees await to disembark onto a U.S. Naval warship from the Coast Guard Cutter Baronof about 50 miles south of the coast of Key West. In the 20 years since Fidel Castro set off a high-seas humanitarian crisis by encouraging an exodus of 35,000 islanders, more than 26,000 other Cubans have risked their lives crossing the Florida Straits. Already this year, nearly 3,000 have been picked up by U.S. authorities, on a pace to double last year's total. [Associated Press]
In this Aug. 24, 1994, file photo, more than one hundred Cuban refugees await to disembark onto a U.S. Naval warship from the Coast Guard Cutter Baronof about 50 miles south of the coast of Key West. In the 20 years since Fidel Castro set off a high-seas humanitarian crisis by encouraging an exodus of 35,000 islanders, more than 26,000 other Cubans have risked their lives crossing the Florida Straits. Already this year, nearly 3,000 have been picked up by U.S. authorities, on a pace to double last year's total. [Associated Press]
Published Aug. 18, 2014

Editor's note: Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago recalls the stories of Cuban refugees she met two decades ago in the Guantánamo camps and how they carved out new lives in America.

• • •

When the tiny Guantánamo-bound jet took off from the Fort Lauderdale airport, the door handle fell into my lap.

The handful of journalists on board laughed nervously, eyeing the ripped roof cover and beat up seats of the Fandango Airlines commuter under contract by the federal government to shuttle journalists to the U.S. Naval base on the eastern end of Cuba.

"I hope this is not an omen," I remember someone saying.

The unsettling start of our trip that crisp day in 1994 was like an omen, but it was the least of our worries. We were on our way to report on the lingering limbo of the Cuban balseros without a country and enduring wholesale detention in a tent-city metropolis set up by the Clinton administration in a remote no-man's land.

It had already been an extraordinary year.

That summer, furious at unprecedented protests and chants of "Freedom!" rising from people gathered at the seafront Malecón in Havana, Cuban leader Fidel Castro threatened to unleash another exodus — and he made good on it, allowing people to leave the island by whatever means.

In a desperate bid to flee, some 35,000 men, women and children took to the high seas in flimsy homemade rafts and quickly assembled boats. Some made it to South Florida. Some died in the attempt. But most were interdicted at sea in what became the largest and most-expensive search-and-rescue operation undertaken by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The balseros, as the rafters were nicknamed after their ingeniously constructed vessels, were ferried en masse to Guantánamo and packed into dusty tent-city camps with names like Camp Kilo, Camp Oscar and Camp Mike, which multiplied into Kilo Two, Oscar Three, etc., as the numbers of people to be housed grew, day by day.

The refugees lived under drab-olive and yellow tents in an unusually arid landscape under the strictest military rule. When I first visited, they had not had any communication with family members, who didn't know whether their loved ones had died at sea or made it to Guantánamo.

The "balsero crisis" would play out here largely in seclusion, except for infrequent media and political visits, until the last Cuban was flown to Miami in 1996.

The Cubans would eventually make it to the United States after the Clinton administration announced on May 2, 1995, that most of the Guantánamo detainees would be processed and allowed to emigrate. And, as part of the deal reached with the Cuban government to curtail high-seas departures, Washington agreed to issue 20,000 visas a year.

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The historic exodus also changed U.S. immigration policy for Cubans to what came to be known as "wet-foot/dry-foot," and it remains in effect today: Those intercepted at sea must qualify for asylum or are returned to Cuba; those who make it to U.S. soil generally get to stay.

But policy was the aftermath. For me, what lingers is the human story, and nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced during two reporting trips to the Guantánamo camps.

I would unknowingly become lost in a sea of refugees as I listened to stories and pleas for help, and as a result, I was almost kicked out by a military commander. He towered over me, screaming that I had ditched my escort and broken a major rule. Only my trembling chin, teary voice and a friendly spokesman who, like me, was a University of Florida Gator would save me from being sent back on that plane and missing one of the most dramatic stories of my career.

I would hold back tears many times during poignant interviews with desperate people, and back at my desk in Miami, while writing their stories.

On this 20th anniversary, when celebrations are planned and proclamations issued, what stands out is the resilience of the balseros I came to know and whose lives in the United States I've followed for many years.

There's the spunky Havana beautician, Dunys Torres, whom I found at Camp Oscar cutting hair with a lot of humor amid a lice epidemic — now the owner of Dunys Unisex, a lovely, stylish salon in Homestead.

"I still think it (leaving) was the best decision I ever made," she tells me. "Now more than ever, I'm happy because I'm a citizen of this great country. I'm 100 percent Cuban, but I adore this country."

There's the engineer, Martin Barquin, who invented a board game to pass the time, only in his "Balseros '94" game, when you landed on a space, a shark ate you, or waves overtook your raft on a stormy night — and the best you could aspire to was to pass "Go" and land in Guantánamo.

"It was a way to make fun of our tragedy at a time when we were hopeless," he remembers, surrounded by family in his South Dade home. He has been in a wheelchair since he suffered an accident in 1997, "but I cannot complain. I am a blessed man. I yearn for my physical freedom, but my mind and spirit are free."

And there are the grief-stricken survivors of the July 13 sinking of a tugboat by Cuban patrol boats in which at least 39 people died. One of the survivors was a 7-year-old boy who lost his mother and brother. I met him and his father, who had the saddest eyes I've ever seen, at Camp Mike. It's heartwarming to see on social media that he's becoming an architect.

The weary children of this exodus — the 78 unaccompanied minors I was briefly allowed to see at a special camp — are unforgettable, the most famous of all 12-year-old violinist Lizbet Martínez, a Miami-Dade music teacher now. She became the symbol of the exodus when she propped her violin on her shoulder and played The Star Spangled Banner after the Coast Guard rescued her family.

The child who captured my heart was 10-year-old Yudelka César.

She lived at Camp Oscar Three under a huge yellow tent with her family and the friends from her Havana neighborhood, who had all pitched in to buy a boat.

Yudelka saw me interviewing people and brought me her diary. She had written all she had endured from the moment her mother woke her up and told her they were leaving Cuba on small white cards that came every day with prepackaged military meals.

She had tied the cards together with two plastic bag clips.

"It's our story," Yudelka told me. "Take it to the United States and print it."

At every camp I visited, refugees would stuff my pockets with SOS notes to relatives in Miami. I would spend a weekend calling people to deliver news that their loved ones were safe, and I would read a love letter to a woman in Hialeah from her husband, who reassured her he was making good on his promise that they would be reunited.

I brought back to Miami Yudelka's diary and translated it. The Herald published it with my photo of her.

I could see myself in Yudelka's eyes, in her story. Like I once did at her age, Yudelka left behind her beloved grandmother, her dog, her cousins, her friends.

That she was willing to part with such treasures was remarkable. Many years later, I tracked her down to the family's home in Arizona, and we had a heartfelt reunion.

I returned her diary, though it hurt me to part with it. Her diary had become a talisman, a source of inspiration for so many stories — and the reason I would again take that scary flight on a dingy plane to Guantánamo to cover the refugee's first flight to freedom.

I would return to see how the ingenious Cubans had turned their camps into makeshift cities, their tents filled with handmade cardboard furniture, complete with drawers and decorative knobs. They still slept in slim cots but had divided tents into "apartments" with white sheets, and helped the military shape camps into small towns with schools, playgrounds, and even elected leaders.

They made art and they made love and babies were born there.

I would stay with the balsero story for two decades, charting fates and remembering the Guantánamo sun burning my skin and the cooing music of hummingbirds waking me up at dawn in a military barrack.

Twenty years later, Yudelka is married and the loving mother of a kindergartener. We still stay in touch.

When I see her dancing a sensuous rhythmic salsa with her father, celebrating her mother's citizenship with little American flags; when she sends me a poem she wrote, a nostalgic ode to her feelings for Cuba, I can see why they feel that the bold risk they took in 1994 was worth it.

But I wonder what happened to a young man, Jorge Santos, who called out to me as I left the last camp on that first trip.

" Señora," he said, pressed against a fence topped by barbed wire. "If you see freedom anywhere, please send her here. Tell her I've been looking for her for a very long time."

I've never known if Jorge finally found her.

But I hope he has made a good life for himself like Dunys, Martin and Yudelka, the little girl writing on the back of meal cards.

She was once a weary balserita huddled in the darkness of a boat adrift, her fate in limbo under a dusty yellow tent, and today, she is part of the mosaic of Cuban-Americans who call the USA home.

"People without a country," a headline in The Herald called the balseros back then, but that they are no longer.