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Finding Mañana - Page 4

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Finding Mañana, by Mirta Ojito (continued)

Many Cuban families tried to stick together through the Mariel boatlift.

More than 35,000 Cuban exiles lived in New Orleans in 1980. Its relative proximity to Florida and access to the Gulf of Mexico made New Orleans a focal point during the boatlift. A local religious leader, the Reverend Leo Frade, who was in charge of Hispanic ministries at Grace Episcopal Church in New Orleans, was trying to raise $170,000 to secure a three-hundred-passenger ship to ferry Cubans from the island to their relatives in Louisiana. Just as their compatriots were doing in Florida, Cubans in the entire state of Louisiana began to mobilize to find jobs for the expected new arrivals.

The enthusiasm was contagious. Mike attacked his project with a military zeal, organizing the crew, studying maps, devising a route, checking and testing equipment. When Ventura returned accompanied by three friends on April 29, Mike was ready. He had hired two young helpers named David and Damien, and, with the Cubans’ money, he had purchased the navigation equipment he needed to get oriented in the open seas. The Cubans had also bought seventy-eight lifejackets, at six dollars each, and stocked the boat with more than five hundred dollars’ worth of food.

On Wednesday, April 30, the Mañana left Lake Pontchartrain at 1:00 a.m. Mike had picked a good day. That same morning, just as he steered the Mañana along the coast of Louisiana toward Florida, the Pentagon announced that Cuban refugees would be picked up from the Florida Straits only when necessary to save lives and that no refugees would be returned to Cuba.

The Mañana ran into trouble as soon as it left home, doing justice to a bumper sticker Mike kept prominently displayed in the cabin: Anybody Who Owns a Boat Deserves It. Outside Gulfport, Mississippi, the Mañana developed an oil leak. Then, near Pensacola, Mike discovered a fuel leak. After both leaks were fixed, one of the two generators began to malfunction, which wreaked havoc with the navigational equipment. Finally hurricane-force winds of fifty miles per hour and ten-foot waves forced the Mañana to wait out the storm in Pensacola, a time Mike used to replace the failed generator and to buy twenty-five gallons of additional fuel. About 130 miles out in the Gulf, past Panama City, Mike got a call from Julavits, the reporter who was chronicling the Mañana’s journey for New Orleans’s afternoon daily, the States-Item, “Nothing can stop us now,” he told Julavits, brimming with his usual optimism. “We are on our way to Cuba.”

It took the Mañana three days to navigate the 600 miles from New Orleans to Key West, where Mike and his crew rested for two nights and restocked the boat. On Sunday, May 4, a fine, sunny day with winds that reached up to eighteen miles per hour, the Mañana departed for Mariel.

The lead editorial of the New York Times that morning called on President Carter to “take the refugees, and stop being so grudging about it.” The Mañana dropped anchor at Mariel that evening, just hours after it had left Key West. Mike could see he was surrounded by hundreds of boats, close to two thousand, bobbing in the darkness. Some of the boats were so small and ill equipped that he wondered how they’d been able to make it to Cuba and how they would make it back, loaded with their human cargo.

That night and for several nights after, the crew of the Mañana was kept awake by the powerful searchlights that scanned the harbor. In the morning, Mike was told the lights were searching for defectors. Cuban officials worried that some of the army men patrolling the harbor would swim out to one of the boats. A soldier had tried it the week before, but he’d been caught by his peers and viciously beaten.

Mike wondered how such a beautiful place could breed so much violence and misery. Mariel was a gorgeous harbor, about two miles long. The landlocked, industrial harbor became known to the United States in 1962 when Soviet ships used it to unload the missiles that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now the port was home to a cement factory that spewed uninterrupted columns of white and gray smoke, the only obstruction to the harbor’s natural beauty. Overlooking the harbor, the old Cuban Naval Academy sat on a hill like a fairy-tale white castle.

Where the Mañana was anchored, about a mile and a half from the docks, there were no channels of official information. Someone from another boat told Mike they needed to turn in their list of wanted relatives at the Triton, a hotel twenty-nine miles away, where the immigration service had established an office. Mike and Ventura took the twelve-foot fiberglass dinghy to the docks and, after paying twenty dollars each, boarded a bus to the hotel. On the bus they were given a few pointers about civility in Cuba, including a request to dispose of chewing gum in garbage cans, not on the floors of the shiny new buses that the government had put at their disposal.

At the hotel, a modern white building twenty-three stories high in an exclusive beachfront section of Havana, they encountered a different world. Bands played Cuban guarachas while pretty waitresses sold cold beer for a dollar; a big meal cost six dollars, but an eight-minute call to Miami could cost more than sixty dollars. Since American dollars had not circulated in Cuba for two decades, the Cuban government arbitrarily determined, in the first days of the boatlift, an exchange rate of 70 Cuban cents per each U.S. dollar. About a thousand of those who had come by boat slept in the hotel’s modest rooms; others went there every day to make calls, take showers, and return refreshed to spend the nights on their boats. A chain-link fence surrounded the building to prevent hotel guests from mingling with the regular Cuban population.

Mike took a quick look at the scene, concentrating on the teary-eyed Cubans who seemed to occupy every corner of the lobby. Several—women, mostly—were openly crying. After days at Mariel, they had just heard that their relatives would not be able to leave with them after all, either because the government did not approve their exit permits or because some families, afraid to be separated, had opted to stay put unless the entire family could leave, a nearly impossible feat given the stinginess of Cuban immigration officials and the size of what most Cubans considered family: not only parents and their kids but grandmothers and sometimes even aunts and uncles. Every captain Mike met at the hotel complained that only a fraction of those on their lists had been granted permits to leave. Then why are the boats leaving so full? Mike wondered. Who are those people, if they’re not the ones on anybody’s lists?

Immigration officials spent about an hour going over Mike’s list of twenty-five names. When they finished, they told him to return to his boat and wait.

Life on the boat at Mariel soon became a tiresome routine. For entertainment the crew and the Cubans swam in the harbor, though the Mañana was equipped with a shower and carried 750 gallons of water. They cooked and ate and drank. For variety in their diet, and to conserve what they’d brought from Key West, they bought supplies from two blue-topped government boats that cruised the harbor. Ham sandwiches cost a dollar at first, but then, when demand increased, the price was raised to three dollars and eventually to five. Bottles of Havana Club rum were priced at eighty-five dollars each, and water was three dollars a gallon, sometimes five.

Tourism had not yet developed in Cuba, but Mariel provided the first indication that the industry could be profitable. Boat owners were fined steeply if they threw garbage overboard; a wooden Cuban boat would make the rounds every morning picking up bags of garbage and selling bags of ice. The price fluctuated according to demand. Some of the men whiled away the night hours at the Capitán Pinares, a huge party vessel, courtesy of the Cuban government, where bands played until dawn.

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