Cuban refugees are using a longer and more dangerous route that takes them to the Cayman Islands, Honduras and the Mexico-U.S. border
BY NANCY SAN MARTIN
PUERTO CORTES, Honduras - Days after landing in this tiny Caribbean port following her trip from Cuba, Rosalva Benítez squinted with pain as sea water and pus oozed out of her ear.
The infection was testimony to a dangerous escape route from Cuba’s southern coast that takes would-be refugees by sea to the Cayman Islands and Honduras and then by land to the Mexico-U.S. border—a 3,700-mile odyssey designed to bypass U.S. patrols along the Florida Straits.
‘‘The waves were so high, they looked like they were going to swallow us,’’ said Benítez, 32, who squeezed into a crudely constructed 15-foot boat with her common-law husband and eight other men. ``It was horrible. I didn’t think we would make it.’‘
Benítez no doubt would have preferred the shorter and safer trip from Cuba’s northwestern coast to South Florida—the route where the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted some 1,500 Cubans in 2004 and later returned most to the communist-ruled country.
The new route is much longer—700 miles by sea to Honduras and then 3,000 more by land, joining the vast stream of Hondurans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans and Mexicans heading to El Norte. It is also increasingly popular.
The number of Cuban balseros arriving in Honduras has nearly quadrupled over the past two years—from 69 in 2003 to 259 last year, according to Honduran government figures. In January, at least 37 made the trek. And many more are en route, the Cubans said.
‘‘somebody discovered this route, word spread and now all those who want to leave are pooling their money to buy material and build their boats in secret,’’ said Alquímedes Broceta, 42, who traveled with Benítez.
So far, authorities in Honduras do not believe that an organized smuggling ring is involved. ‘‘There is nothing that would lead us to put together a network,’’ said an official at the U.S. Embassy in the capital city of Tegucigalpa.
But it has become increasingly clear that the Cubans are arriving in Honduras by design—not some accidental shift of winds or currents—and using the Central American nation as a stepping stone on their journey to the United States.
‘‘We have relatives from Miami calling us at all hours looking for their family,’’ said Julio Romero, an immigration officer in Puerto Cortes. ``The balseros arrive with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They tell us more are on the way. Then, they disappear,’‘
The journey toward Honduras usually begins somewhere along the southern coast of Cuba’s eastern province of Camagüey and makes its first stop in the Cayman Islands, about 120 miles to the southwest. There, authorities not only encourage Cubans to keep going but also provide fuel and other supplies—within some limits.
‘‘Cuban nationals will only be allowed to continue on in the vessel in which they arrived or another of Cuban origin,’’ the islands’ acting Gov. James Ryan said in a statement last summer that gave official sanction to the assistance.
From the Cayman Islands, it’s a 580-mile sail to Honduras—a predominantly agrarian nation of 6.8 million people and the only one in the region that does not have a deportation accord with the Cuban government.
The spike in arrivals has raised concerns.
‘‘If this turns into a massive influx, we’ll have to make a decision,’’ said Ramon Romero, Honduran director general of international migration. ``We don’t have the resources to handle it.’‘
But for most, the stopover in Honduras is brief. They head north quickly, to join the masses of illegal migrants who cross the U.S. southwest border each year. Unlike the others, once they set foot on U.S. soil the Cubans become the beneficiaries of the U.S. wet-foot/dry-foot policy and cannot be deported.
The long and illegal journey through Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and finally across the U.S.-Mexico border is often paid with money wired by relatives in the United States, several of the balseros told The Herald.
In Puerto Cortes, the cash is often wired to Raúl Carranza, a Honduran businessman who insisted that he has helped some 150 Cubans over the past year out of humanitarian concern and denied local media reports that he may be profiting from people smuggling. On average, the Cubans received about $200, he told The Herald.
Honduran immigration officials say the illegal trip to El Norte usually costs about $5,000, leading them to believe that the U.S. relatives provide the traveling Cubans with additional wire transfers along the way.
Carranza said he has turned to exile leaders in Miami for financial assistance to pay for food and clothing for the arriving Cubans, but so far has been forced to pay with his own money.
Jose Basulto, head of the Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue, acknowledged that he has spoken to Carranza but said his organization was not likely to get involved.
‘‘If we start to help and it becomes public in Cuba, we would be setting off a stampede,’’ Basulto said.
The trip from Cuba to Honduras usually takes about six days in calm seas. But many of the would-be refugees wind up at sea for a lot longer because of storms and contrary winds and currents.
Benítez’s trip took 18 days, including 11 at sea.
Benítez and the other members of her group set out near the Camagüey seaside village of Santa Cruz del Sur on Christmas Day, but bad weather forced them to hide in one of the uninhabited Cuban islets just off the coast for three days.
When they arrived at Cayman Brac on Dec. 30, authorities were relatively friendly. ‘‘They told us we had two options: stay and be returned to Cuba or keep going,’’ said Broceta.
Cayman officials provided food, clothing, fuel and even life vests for the rest of the journey. Similar resources were given to another group of Cubans who landed in Grand Cayman a week later and also made it to Puerto Cortes.
‘‘If they would have let us stay in Grand Cayman, we would have stayed there,’’ said Mario Rivero, captain of a 26-foot boat that brought 19 people to Honduras, including three who boarded in Grand Cayman.
‘‘I just want to be able to live as a human being,’’ Rivero, 45, said. ``I want to work, be able to take care of myself and help my family in Cuba. I want to have a normal life. Life is unbearable in Cuba. And it’s getting worse.’‘
The sea odyssey was so terrifying that one of the original nine passengers in Benítez’s group opted to stay in Cayman Brac and be deported to Cuba.
‘‘I don’t want to die,’’ his boat mates recalled him as saying.
Soon after they resumed their journey on Jan. 4, the sea grew monstrous, Benítez recalled.
The boat’s motor broke and the eight Cubans on board had to rely on a sail sewn together from sofa covers and two oars made from sticks and rectangular pieces of plastic. They rowed for 15 hours just to get past strong currents that were pulling them toward Belize, where they would have faced deportation.
At night, the group prayed aloud and promised to go to church if they made it to Honduras.
The morning of Jan. 12, their prayers were answered. They made landfall in front of a wooden shack on a stretch of Puerto Cortes beach.
Nearby stood the Iglesia de Cristo Evangelical church.
‘‘We went in, got on our knees and thanked God we made it,’’ Iván Palacioz, another passenger traveling with Benítez, told The Herald in an interview the morning of Jan. 17.
By that afternoon, he and three others from the group had disappeared. Carranza later confirmed they boarded a bus to the Guatemalan border.
Benítez, who left behind a 15-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter, said she fled Cuba to help provide a future for her children: ``I’m always thinking of my kids, and I have hope that one day I can send for them.’‘
Five days later, she too disappeared from Puerto Cortes.