Finding Mañana - Page 3


Finding Mañana, by Mirta Ojito (continued)

Cubans escaping to the U.S.

On April 26, 1980, as Mike worked on the Mañana, berthed at the docks of the New Orleans Municipal Yacht Harbor, a man and two women approached him.

We understand that your boat is for hire, the man said in a thick Spanish accent that Mike couldn’t quite pinpoint to any country he was familiar with. He concentrated on the man’s appearance: tall, white but tanned, standing erect, almost proud, his eyes fixed on Mike’s face.

That depends, Mike said carefully, trying to keep the excitement out of his voice. These could be his first clients.

The man said he’d been sent by Luis Gomez, a former city fiscal officer and a well-known figure among Latinos in New Orleans, someone Mike had known for at least two years. Mike was paying close attention now, and he urged the man to continue. He said his name was Rogelio Ventura, a Cuban, just like the friends who accompanied him. Without pausing, Ventura asked Mike to take them to Cuba to bring back relatives they’d not seen in at least a decade, relatives they desperately wanted to rescue from communism. He said they had about $3,000 with them and were prepared to pay more. The offer was tempting. After years of dedicating almost his entire veteran’s pension, $1,300 a month, to the Mañana, Mike could certainly use the money. He owed about $160,000, money he’d borrowed from the bank to refurbish the Mañana. Still, Mike was cautious. He’d never ventured outside the territorial waters of the United States, and his boat lacked a crucial piece of deep-sea navigation equipment, which cost about two thousand dollars. Also, he had no idea what to expect in Cuba, a country whose history he was only vaguely familiar with.

The more he listened, though, the more going to Cuba seemed like a manageable—even desirable—good deed. Cuba wasn’t too far; he could picture it in his head: the largest island in the Caribbean, shaped like an alligator at rest, warm weather, great beaches, ample harbors, a mariner’s dream. The Gulf wasn’t very dangerous, he thought. Saving people was part of the Mañana’s mission, and Mike relished the idea of playing savior. The man and the women in front of him seemed determined to go. Mike took a look around the harbor and realized that of all the boats there, his was the largest and the best equipped for such a long journey. If he didn’t take them, who would?

Ever since Vietnam he’d felt he was living on borrowed time, or lagniappe, originally a French word that means “something extra,” like the extra doughnut bakers used to throw into the bag for customers who bought a dozen. Perhaps the time had come to put the lagniappe he’d been blessed with to good use. Fine, he told them, but I won’t charge you for it. I don’t deal in human beings. Go back to your church or your community, get a list ready, and I’ll take you to Cuba for the cost of expenses.

Rogelio Ventura, a forty-five-year-old carpenter who had left Cuba only ten years earlier, was astonished by Mike’s generosity. With tears in his eyes, Ventura thanked him and promised to come back with others who would accompany them on the trip.

As soon as the trio left, Mike picked up off the floor his yet-to-be-read copy of the daily Times-Picayune. An AP story on page four told him part of what he needed to know: “The makeshift flotilla of small boats ferrying refugees from Cuba to the United States faced stormy weather Friday, but refugees from the communist country continued to stream across the Florida Straits,” the lead story said. He read on: “State Department spokesman Thomas Reston said that as of Friday morning 16 boats had been served with notices of fines for defying the administration’s call for a halt to the boatlift.” 

Mike didn’t understand what he was reading. He’d been so busy tinkering with the Mañana that he hadn’t paid attention to the world around him for a few days. Searching for more information, he rummaged through the pile of unread papers from the past week. On page one of the April 24 edition, he found another wire story from Miami: Boats Ignore Ban, Set Sail for Cuba, the bold headline announced across the page.

As he read the story’s first paragraph, he began to understand the intensity of his recent visitors’ feelings. “Scores of boats—from tiny pleasure craft to big charter fishing boats rented for briefcases full of cash—set out for Cuba Wednesday in defiance of a State Department command to halt the sealift of refugees from the Peruvian embassy in Havana.”

He realized that the commitment he’d just made to the Cubans was in fact a dangerous and apparently illegal act. As a veteran he couldn’t see himself violating the law even if it entailed rescuing people from communism. While there was still time to change his mind, Mike decided to call his local senator and, if necessary, the White House to ask for guidance. An assistant to the senator gave him his blessing. At the White House, Mike told the operator who answered about the strange request he’d just received. The operator transferred him to a junior staff member.

I have only one question, Mike asked the young man after mentioning he was a Vietnam veteran. If I do what these people want, will I get in trouble?

No, was the succinct reply. Mike forgot to ask the man for his name or rank. Still unsure, Mike called Joe Julavits, a local newspaper reporter he knew from the yacht club. Julavits, who wrote a regular boating column, didn’t try to discourage him. What’s more, he asked Mike to let him follow his story if he decided to go.

After all the calls, Mike wondered how much legal risk there could really be in bringing people from Cuba, an enemy country. In times of crisis, he knew, governments are prone to make threatening public statements that are ultimately meaningless and impossible to carry out. The boatlift, he concluded, could be one of those.

Mike’s conclusion wasn’t far from the truth.

Though by then both the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service had issued repeated warnings against bringing refugees from Cuba illegally, few captains had paid any attention. These statements, delivered to the public without much fanfare by low-level administration officials, didn’t seem to carry the full weight of the U.S. government. In addition, they contradicted each other. The State Department’s warning carried the threat of prison, as well as a two-thousand-dollar fine and forfeiture of the vessel. The Immigration and Naturalization Service’s announcement warned that it would fine boat captains a thousand dollars per passenger and seize the boat until the fine was paid. The administration had not yet spoken with one voice, cohesively and forcibly, against the boatlift.

The week that began on April 21, the day the first two boats of the flotilla—Dos Hermanos and Blanche III—returned from Cuba loaded with refugees, was the busiest and most stressful week of the Carter administration. It started off on an ominous note when, on Monday, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance told the president privately that he would resign, citing his disagreement with the administration’s decision to rescue the American hostages in Iran after the failure of secret negotiations with the Iranian government. 

Daily routine meetings between President Carter and his top advisers that week included briefings on the Iran hostage crisis, the rising price of oil, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Vietnamese moving toward Cambodia, the hundreds of thousands of Indochinese pouring into refugee camps in Southeast Asia, the crumbling of the Camp David Accords as the Israelis continued to establish new settlements in the Arab territories, and the deteriorating economy in an election year—inflation had reached 17 percent the previous month, and there was no hope for a balanced budget despite deep cutbacks in federal social programs.

On Wednesday, April 24, when there were already more than three hundred boats in the Mariel harbor, the United States launched a disastrous mission to rescue the hostages in Iran, which resulted in the death of eight American soldiers and failed to bring the hostages home. With the world and the White House in such a convulsed state, no administration official had a clear idea of what was happening in Miami or Key West, much less in Mariel, a harbor that few if any of the president’s top advisers had ever heard of.

It wasn’t until April 26, the Saturday when Mike was approached by the Cubans, that the first high-level Mariel meeting was held in the White House. Vice President Walter Mondale chaired the meeting in the Theodore Roosevelt Room, a large office adjacent to the Oval Office that was nicknamed the “Fish Room” because President Roosevelt used to keep a fish tank there. Present were the chief of coast guard operations; the attorney general; the secretary of state; the secretary of health, education and welfare; the deputy secretary of defense; a deputy CIA director; and other top people in the administration, including Stuart Eizenstat, President Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser and executive director of the White House domestic policy staff.

Everyone in the room seemed to be taken aback by the boatlift. For a long time, the signs of an impending crisis with Cuba had been clear, but everyone in the Carter administration had seemingly ignored them. There was one exception: Wayne Smith, the chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, had alerted his government on repeated occasions,but to no avail. In February he’d sent his bosses at the State Department a cable titled “Cuban Intention to Reopen Camarioca,” calculating that the mere mention of the word “Camarioca” would at least pique the curiosity of his superiors, who might remember the boatlift unleashed by Castro during the Johnson presidency. The cable sat untouched in a junior officer’s inbox at the Department of State’s Bureau of Legal Affairs. But even if the cable had moved through the channels as expeditiously as it should have, few people in the Carter White House would have understood the significance of Camarioca. Difficult to pronounce and impossible to spell for the majority of President Carter’s advisers, the name had not yet achieved its status as a code word for uncontrollable immigration.

During the rambling meeting about Mariel on April 26, Smith’s warnings were not even discussed. It was too late for introspection by then. The session, which lasted several hours, had been hastily called to discuss options to stem the flow. One of the options was to persuade the Cuban-American community, which administration officials knew to be generally law-abiding, to stop chartering boats to Cuba; the other was to determine what if any legal routes the government could pursue to stop the boatlift.

Though the two alternatives were explored, many of those in the meeting knew instantly that there was very little they could do. It wasn’t illegal for American vessels to leave the country. It was only illegal for them to return loaded with unscreened, unapproved refugees. But what to do with a boatful of refugees? They certainly could not be returned to Cuba, a communist country. Also, to force them back into Cuban waters would constitute an act of war against an enemy nation. The government could deny the refugees entry, but where would they go? In dangerously overcrowded, precarious old boats, to force them to remain at sea would have been tantamount to a death sentence. There was no immigration agreement that allowed a safe return to Cuba, say, by plane. And even if there were, once the Cubans had stepped on U.S. soil they had the right to stay and apply for residence, courtesy of a 1966 law granting Cubans that privilege. The Justice Department would be inundated with legal challenges opposing the deportation of people who, since the advent of communism on the island, had been received in the United States with open arms. More important, to turn them away would be contrary to the rhetoric and the image of the United States as a safe harbor for refugees fleeing repressive pro-Soviet regimes at the height of the Cold War.

Coast guard officials in Key West quickly established that the only way to stop the boatlift would be to use force, and they told White House officials just that. No one in an administration guided by human-rights principles was prepared to allow for such a thing. There was another motivation for not resorting to violence: In an election year, no one wanted to further alienate the Cuban-American community, an important voting bloc in South Florida. Thus, while Washington maintained that anyone piloting boats to Cuba would be detained and fined, in reality there was no way to safely and legally stop the boatlift. The meeting ended inconclusively.

When the first week of the boatlift came to a close, over 6,000 Cubans had arrived in Key West, more than double the number of people who arrived in the twenty-four days of the entire Camarioca boatlift of 1965. 

In a public statement on April 27, Vice President Mondale called for the “orderly, safe, and humane evacuation of refugees” and asked the Cuban-American community to “respect the law and to avoid these dangerous and illegal boat passages.” At the same time, the president ordered the navy and the coast guard to render all possible assistance to those at sea.

Both floundering and mutually contradictory attempts at setting policy left the shores of the United States wide open to Cuban refugees. And it left Mike Howell with no compelling legal or ethical reason to refuse the Cubans help. The Mañana would sail on.

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Finding Mañana © 2005 by Mirta Ojito Used by Permission. All rights reserved.