There are many ways to get to Florida, but few rank with Jose Luis Palin’s trip from hell. In early March, he and four friends pushed off from a Cuban beach on a couple of tractor inner tubes tied together and covered with a tarp. One of the men panicked and upended the raft, sending their food and water to the bottom before going under himself. Another rafter, delirious from dehydration, shouted that he could see the streets of Key West – in fact still miles away. He leapt in and drowned. The next day Palin’s best friend whispered through sun-cracked and salt-swollen lips, “Tomorrow, Sunday, they’re gonna pick us up.” Sunday dawned and he was dead. “The two of us who were left, we just lay in the raft,” says Palin, recovering in a Miami hospital. When a passing fishing boat finally spotted them, the 34-year-old former hotel guard was the only member of the group still alive.
As Fidel Castro’s Cuba slowly collapses, a growing human tide is washing north across the 90 miles of the Straits of Florida. Apart from the 1980 Mariel boat lift, when Havana allowed 125,000 Cubans to go to the United States, Castro kept his borders tightly sealed; during most of the ’80s, an average of 40 people a year managed the Cuban equivalent of jumping the Berlin wall. But with economic conditions deteriorating drastically in Cuba, the numbers of refugees have been skyrocketing. The coast guard already counts more than 600 arriving balseros, or rafters, this year – up 40 percent over 1992, when a record total of 2,553 came to shore.
The refugees travel on a wing, a prayer and a vessel fashioned from whatever they can scavenge or buy on the black market. “You wouldn’t believe some of the things we’re seeing,” says Key West coast guard spokesman Donald Godfrey. “They’re coming on anything that floats.” Over the past three years one Miami Cuban exile has filled his yard and a nearby storage space with more than 300 balsas. His “museum” ranges from a few guava branches tied across an old Soviet inner tube, to an aluminum-frame sailing outrigger built by an engineer. One celebrated high-tech exception to the balsas was the MiG-23 that former Cuban Air Force pilot Orestes Lorenzo flew across in two years ago; he returned to rescue his wife and kids in a Cessna last December.
Once they’re on the high seas, the refugees’ best hope is a passing ship. A Miami-based volunteer group called Brothers to the Rescue flies the only regular search missions. Since the group started three years ago, its planes have spotted more than 650 Cubans in the straits. “It’s Cuban roulette, you have to he crazy,” says founder Jose Basulto. “But you can’t just leave them out there alone.”
Inner tubes: They are the lucky ones: an estimated half of all Cubans who set out die in the process. Off Cape Canaveral, a NASA recovery ship searching for space-shuttle booster rockets found the lone survivor of a 10-day inner-tube voyage. Another homemade raft recently bobbed near tourist-jammed Miami Beach, with only empty food containers aboard. And at a Miami cemetery, distant cousins buried a woman who washed ashore just north of Palm Beach, six days after she, her husband, their three children and four others left Havana in a 17-foot boat-and sailed straight into March’s “storm of the century.” The other bodies were never found.
Havana officials say Washington’s open-door policy encourages Cubans to risk their lives – and the Americans don’t disagree. Radio Marti, the U.S.-government funded station, beams regular warnings to would-be balseros. But the broadcasts haven’t stopped anyone; Basulto predicts that last year’s record numbers will at least double. More than 1,500 people have passed through Key West’s church-backed Transit Home for Cuban Refugees since it opened last fall. Officials at the home plan to handle 5,000 people in 1993. Should Castro really lose his grip on Cuba, that will only he the start of a flood.