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Finding Mañana - Page 7

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Finding Mañana, by Mirta Ojito (continued)

Fidel Castro used the Mariel boatlift as a political tool to leverage his advantage and increase his impact on the international stage.

Before Mike and the others began to debate the fate of the shrimp boat, a New York Times reporter had noticed it, too. His name was Edward Schumacher, and after being at the harbor for about ten days, he was eager to go home. “When he went looking for a boat that would take him back, the Valley Chief had caught his eye, at first because it was overloaded. Moored near it there was another vessel, double the size of the Valley Chief and grossly overloaded as well. It was called the America. Hundreds of men with glazed eyes, shaved heads, and what appeared to be prison or hospital garb were hanging on to any part of the boats that could keep them from falling into the water.

Schumacher smelled a story. Just a week earlier, the Washington Post had published a short article citing FBI officials’ concern because “a small number of Cuban intelligence agents, criminals and prostitutes [had] been discovered among the flood of Cuban refugees entering Key West.” But the piece relied on information that the FBI’s director, William H. Webster, had shared with a group of Washington Post editors and reporters during a private lunch. The New York Times had not been invited—certainly not Schumacher, who was hundreds of miles away prowling the docks of Mariel.

Until Schumacher stumbled upon the Valley Chief and the America, no reporter from a major U.S. newspaper had actually been able to witness how the Cuban government was mixing “undesirables” with the regular boatlift crowd. For one thing, it was nearly impossible to assess whom it was that the Cuban government was granting exit permits to. There was clearly a group of people authorized to leave who had relatives waiting for them at the harbor. Then there were the thousands of refugees from the Peruvian embassy. But there was a third category as well: Thousands of Cubans were lining up in from of specially set-up immigration offices to petition for visas on the grounds that they were what the government called escoria: homosexuals, prostitutes, drug users, and enemies of the revolution. Whether or not those seeking exit permits were truly “undesirables” was unknown. A man could easily pretend to be gay; his wife, on another day, could pretend to be a lesbian. If both were believed, they could leave through Mariel and meet up again in Florida, and no one would know what they’d had to say to escape their country.

Schumacher had heard that the Cuban government had been using a formula in which only about 30 percent of the 30,000 refugees who’d already arrived in Key West—about 9,000—had relatives in the United States.

What Schumacher didn’t know was that Castro himself manipulated the formula every day, balancing both Washington’s tolerance and Miami’s innocence against his own needs to cleanse the country of “scum.” He had created seven categories encompassing every possible type of person he wanted to get rid of from gusanos to child molesters. If Cubans in Miami monitoring the new arrivals noticed that too many criminals were arriving in the boatlift and protested too loud, Castro would adjust his numbers, increasing the percentage of relatives and lowering the percentage of criminals for a few days. If no one protested, he would reverse the numbers.

The Valley Chief provided Schumacher with the perfect anecdote for the story he’d been writing in his head for days. He got closer to the boat and began interviewing the men in Spanish.

By the time Mike approached Pier 3 to examine the Valley Chief, Schumacher had already sent the story to his editors at the Times.

I’ll take them, Mike said to Oswaldo. But because he was wary of the men staring at him from the boat, Mike said he would take the women, the children, and the elderly aboard the Mañana and tow the Valley Chief with the men on it to international waters, where the U.S. Coast Guard would help them. Oswaldo, eager for any offer that would take him far from Cuban shores, accepted.

Mike went back to the Mañana and announced his decision to the New Orleans Cubans. They, too, believed Major Rafael’s promise and quickly warmed up to the idea that if they couldn’t take their own relatives with them, at least they’d be helping other Cubans in need. The crew lifted the anchor and came bow-in alongside the Valley Chief.

Before the Mañana left, a Cuban soldier handed Mike an official departure authorization. Signed by an officer at the Ministry of the Interior, the form listed routine information about the boat’s size and capacity and where it was headed. In the space reserved for a description of what kind of shipment the boat was taking from Cuba, the officer had typed the word lastre. Ballast.

The next morning Schumacher’s story ran above the fold, in the center of the front page of the New York Times: Retarded People and Criminals Are Included in Cuban Exodus, the headline announced. The top of the story provided the first tangible and independently witnessed proof of Castro’s macabre plan:

The young man’s rib cage protruded from his chest and only a few teeth remained in his mouth. His speech was limited, apparently from mental retardation. His glazed eyes bulged with fear.

He was on his way to live in the United States

The young man and a handful of people of similar appearance were among almost 200 Cuban refugees crowded aboard the Valley Chief, a 70-foot fishing boat that is scheduled to arrive tomorrow at Key West, Fla. 

About 200 common criminals, Cubans here said, were to arrive at about the same time among 420 refugees aboard another vessel, a 120-foot red, white and blue catamaran called the America.

The two vessels, moored near each other this morning at a pier where Cuban soldiers have been loading refugees, are being used in a major effort, discussed openly by Cuban officials, to rid the country of criminals, mentally retarded people, delinquents and others the Government calls “scum” by sending them to the United States.

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