BY VANESSA BAUZA | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
COJIMAR, Cuba - On a white wall above his bedside table, Dennis Perez Lorente has sketched out a rough nautical map he hopes will one day lead to a new life across the Florida Straits. Penciled, swirling lines indicate currents, which loop up from the Caribbean Sea into the Gulf of Mexico before washing out into the straits above Cuba.
Arrows show the degrees that separate his coastal hometown of Cojimar from Miami, which is written large on the map across Florida, as though any other destination were beside the point.
Guided either by a secondhand compass or by the sun and stars, Perez Lorente and his identical twin brother, Jimi, have tried and failed to cross the Florida Straits together on homemade boats four times since April 2003. Jimi Perez Lorente has attempted two additional trips without his brother, but with the same result: repatriation.
Thin and tanned, with sinewy arms and angular faces, the 24-year-old brothers are friendly and disarming. But when they describe their frustrated plans to leave Cuba, showing careful drawings of homemade boats and a model raft made from strips of foam and paper, they grow serious and resolute.
Four X’s scattered across the map mark the spots where their trips have come to an end.
Both the U.S. and Cuban coast guards have intercepted the brothers. They have been stranded by their boat’s battered engine six miles out at sea. Last August a passing American oil tanker picked them up so close to Miami they could see the city’s lights.
On the brothers’ wall map, the crossing seems short, but the 90 miles to U.S. shores are fraught with obstacles.
“You have to evade the Cuban coast guard, the helicopters, fishermen who inform on you and also the American coast guard,” Jimi Perez Lorente said. “You really have to want to make it.”
And he does.
“After going to so much trouble I can’t just sit at home and say I’m not trying anymore,” he said.
A quote, borrowed from a song and written large on the wall across the map, puts it another way: “Only those who one day fight for freedom are worthy of it.”
The brothers were only 14 during the rafter exodus that sent more than 35,000 Cubans to the seas in the summer of 1994 after President Fidel Castro announced his government would no longer stop boats or rafts leaving Cuba. Thousands left from Cojimar, a small fishing village of modest concrete and wooden homes perched on a hill overlooking a small bay five miles east of Havana. Like many residents, the brothers remember the tide of rafters, or balseros, who descended on the craggy beaches with carnival-like euphoria, hammering together boats from sheets of zinc, inner tubes and scraps of wood, barely stopping for food or sleep.
Many balseros have since visited Cuba, returning with new families and stories of new lives. Others were seen too soon, their bodies washing up onto the beaches of Cojimar within days of their tearful farewells.
Ten years later, though the Cuban economy is gradually recovering from the deep post-Soviet recession of the early 1990s, hundreds of Cubans continue to take to the seas for many of the same reasons as their predecessors: a chance for a more prosperous future and reunification with relatives across the straits.
American diplomats in Havana estimate that currently fewer than 1,000 Cubans arrive in Florida by sea each year, either by paying smugglers in speedboats or by making their own vessels.
Under the 1994-95 migration accords, which brought an end to the rafter crisis, the vast majority of those who are intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba.
As of late July, the U.S. Coast Guard had intercepted 785 Cubans, about the same number who were picked up during first seven months of last year. The U.S. Coast Guard intercepted 1,374 Cubans in 2003, compared with 931 in 2002.
Both the Cuban and U.S. governments emphasize “legal and orderly” immigration, but Dennis and Jimi Perez Lorente’s efforts to emigrate legally have been thwarted. They each applied for refugee status at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, but were rejected in identical form letters that explained they did not meet the requirements for asylum.
Dennis, who once worked at a shipyard, and Jimi, who worked at a refinery, are both unemployed and say their past attempts at leaving Cuba make it difficult for them to find new jobs. Last July the Cuban government fined them $135 each after one of their trips.
They seem not to worry about taking their lives into their hands in the straits.
“I am more worried I will go to prison here because of my illegal exits, because of my way of thinking. I prefer to leave now, even if something happens to me, than to stay here,” Jimi Perez Lorente said. “To arrive in the United States would be the greatest happiness. To work, live quietly ... and see that I can live off my work.”
Under the migratory accords, the U.S. government issues about 20,000 visas a year to Cubans seeking to move to the United States permanently. This year the U.S. government issued its annual allotment of visas by mid-July, the earliest yet, in an effort to show “how important we think the accords are,” said James Cason, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana.
However, because the Cuban government has not authorized Cubans to register for the visa lottery since 1998, Cubans who were underage then have been shut out of the most common avenue for legal immigration, Cason said.
“What we’re finding now is that more and more people that are on rafts and leaving are people under age 25; in fact, it’s close to 30 percent,” Cason said. “We’re also finding that doctors are leaving on the rafts.”
Medical personnel make up about 80 percent of the 1,352 Cubans who have been cleared for U.S. travel documents but denied exit permits by the Cuban government, Cason added.
The Cuban government, meanwhile, accuses Washington of stimulating risky rafter and speedboat trips by letting Cubans who reach dry land stay in the United States and apply for residency a year later.
The “wet foot-dry foot” policy “has caused the loss of countless Cuban lives by rewarding and encouraging illegal emigration and giving Cubans extraordinary privileges that are not granted to citizens of any other country in the world,” Castro said during a speech last week.
Former balsero Ouldaller Mola Vega, 29, who lives in a small seaside home a few blocks from the Perez Lorente twins, cast off from the shores of Cojimar on Aug. 21, 1994, on a raft he built with two friends. After enduring a storm and circling sharks during three days at sea, his group was picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and taken to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, not knowing whether they would be relocated to the United States. Weeks turned into months on the base. Some rafters grew so frustrated by the possibility of indefinite detention that they tried to swim back to Cuban territory.
Almost six months to the day after Mola Vega left Cojimar, he joined a group of rafters who sneaked onto the minefields surrounding the Navy base.
Today he still regrets that decision, which changed his future. He makes about $6 a month working at a Cojimar bakery. The friends who left on his raft remained on the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay and eventually were relocated to the United States. One is a plumber in Miami. The other works as a welder in California.
“Some people who left have made something of themselves. ... I was the one with the idea (to make the raft). Everything was mine,” he said. “When you have a dream and it isn’t realized, how do you feel?”
A recent study of 220 recent Cubans immigrants, most of whom were smuggled in speedboats to Florida and interviewed no more than a week after their arrival, showed that many of the reasons for crossing the straits remain the same as a decade ago.
“They have come to look for a future, for better economic opportunities,” said Andy Gomez, senior fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies, who co-wrote the study. “The majority of the people we interviewed said they would not go back for anything; (they said) it would take many years to create a free political structure.”
Ariel Diego Marcel attempted one of the most ingenious crossings last year when he and 11 friends and neighbors attached a propeller to the drive shaft of a 1951 Chevrolet truck, turning it into an amphibious vessel. The group was intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard and repatriated, and the Chevy was sunk.
Diego Marcel, 29, now spends his days at his home in a Havana suburb, occasionally working odd jobs as a mechanic.
Like thousands who have been turned back, he said he would again test his luck at sea.
“We can’t fight against this (system) so we decided to leave,” he said. “I am young, I’d like to have opportunities to be free. Here I feel like a sparrow in a cage.”