ANDREA RODRIGUEZ | Associated Press
Sandra de los Santos became famous this summer when she left Cuba for the Bahamas and then, after a brief disappearance, climbed out of a wooden cargo crate in Miami. Her odyssey was one of the more creative ways that dozens of Cubans have made bids to reach the United States in recent years.
De los Santos was allowed to stay, though she has called home several times. Weeks after the journey, those who know her in Havana are still just as shocked as the U.S. authorities who were forced to acknowledge a gaping hole in border security.
“I couldn’t even watch the videos people brought showing her being interviewed there,” said Milena Chacon, who lives next door to De los Santos’ apartment building in the central neighborhood of Casino.
De los Santos, 23, tucked herself inside a wooden crate that was flown by a cargo plane from the Bahamas to Miami. A DHL cargo crew found her curled up inside the crate, the size of a small filing cabinet, after workers unloaded it Aug. 24 at Miami International Airport.
As her family knew, de los Santos had traveled to the Bahamas from Cuba weeks earlier, though they didn’t know where the money came from to pay for the travel. They also had no idea she had her eyes on U.S. shores.
De los Santos was raised by her 90-year-old grandmother, whom she has called frequently since her adventure began. Younger sister Oyaima painted a picture of a responsible, warm woman who helped keep the family together.
“She set up this home,” said Oyaima, speaking from the family’s apartment. “She is a very good girl, sweet and loving.”
Evelinne Suarez, the family’s doctor and a former schoolmate of De los Santos, said she was intelligent and reserved.
“Ever since she was little she studied really hard,” Suarez said. “She’s a survivor.”
De los Santos had once begun working on a law degree but never finished, Suarez said. She said the woman’s urge to leave was understandable.
“Why did she go? There are many young people who want to go. In Cuba, they don’t see the fruit of their efforts, of their labor,” she said.
Resources are scarce in Cuba, where salaries average less than $20 and things like cars, washing machines and new furniture are considered luxury items.
De los Santos is not the first Cuban stowaway, but she’s among the luckier ones.
In January, 2001, two teenage Cuban military cadets tucked themselves into the belly of a plane they thought was heading to the United States. Their frozen bodies were found when the plane landed in London.
A dozen other Cubans, including children, made headlines in July last year when the U.S. Coast Guard spotted them floating on a 1951 Chevrolet pickup truck converted to a pontoon boat. They were sent back to Cuba.
Under the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy, Cubans who reach U.S. land are usually allowed to stay, while most picked up at sea are returned home.
In a second try in February on a 1959 Buick, most of the would-be migrants were repatriated again, though a couple and their 4-year-old son got a reprieve and were sent to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for further investigation of their political asylum claims.
U.S. officials say fewer than 1,000 Cubans now reach American shores by sea annually. It is unknown how many attempt the risky voyage and don’t make it.
Cuba claims that U.S. migration policy encourages Cubans to take to the waters despite sharks and sudden bad weather. U.S. officials, who deny the claim, have launched campaigns to discourage people from trying to make the crossing.