After 15 Hours at Sea, a Cuban Refugee’s Dream Is Deferred

More than 15 hours into Leonardo Herrera’s second attempt to reach the U.S., he was convinced he’d seen Florida.

The 23-year-old mechanic from Boyeros, Cuba, had been focused on the rolling waves that rocked and lifted the wooden boat transporting him, 11 other Cubans and all their hopes for a future free of repression and deprivation. Dolphins tracked alongside. And when Herrera raised his eyes, he believed he saw the dreamed-of coastline, though it was many miles away. His companions erupted in joy. Men hugged. Women cried.

“They wanted so badly to get there,” Herrera said. “And we were thriving.”

Perhaps the celebration explained why they didn’t notice the U.S. Coast Guard plane until it was directly overhead. Minutes later, a cutter approached. Within four days, he was back on Cuban soil.

After 15 Hours at Sea, a Cuban Refugee’s Dream Is Deferred

On May 28, Herrera became one of the hundreds of Cuban migrants intercepted by the Coast Guard this year. Covid and economic crisis have torn through the communist island, driving an explosion of street protests and a rush of balseros, or rafters, to set sail 90 miles across the Florida Straits. With frustration now spilling onto the streets and the Cuban regime cracking down, the U.S. has sternly warned would-be refugees against following suit. Herrera doubts they’ll listen.

“Every Cuban who gets on a raft knows the worst can happen,” Herrera said in an interview last week. “I simply couldn’t stand it here anymore.”

“We don’t want food, we don’t want money. We just want to leave.”

The Coast Guard didn’t verify precise details of Herrera’s account, but public records confirm that sailors intercepted a boat carrying Cuban migrants 23 miles south of Key West that day, and that they were repatriated May 31. The dates jibe with Herrera’s story. He provided Bloomberg with hand-written documentation that shows his return to the island that day, as well videos and photos from his journey.

Herrera first tried to flee in January. He said he attempted to stow away on a U.S.-bound plane, but was caught by police and spent a week in jail.

Back at his parents’ crowded home in Boyeros, outside Havana, a bean-heavy diet grated on him. Store shelves were going empty and shoppers fought in line. He wanted an easier life.

“One where you get back from work and are comfortable,” he said. “One where you’re not worried about not having enough rice or chicken to eat.”

The Cuban economy suffered an extraordinary collapse last year -- an 11% drop -- as the pandemic cut off tourist dollars and the Trump administration tightened a six-decade trade embargo. Frustration and desperation sent thousands fleeing overland through Mexico and, increasingly, by sea.

The Coast Guard says it has caught 554 Cuban migrants so far this year, up from 49 in fiscal 2020. Such migration had plummeted from 5,396 in 2016, when it was enabled by the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy, which granted a path to citizenship if Cubans reached U.S. shores. President Barack Obama eliminated the measure in the waning days of his second term.

Herrera was unconcerned about his legal status. He sold his computer to pay for the $400 spot on a uncovered boat powered by a single diesel engine. It left from Baracoa Beach, about 17 miles west of Havana, on May 27. He traveled with just peanuts, bread, water and a backpack of fresh clothes.

After 15 Hours at Sea, a Cuban Refugee’s Dream Is Deferred

He had grown up hearing about shark attacks and migrants lost at sea. But when the boat departed, relief arrived in a rush. “On the raft, I felt like was taking a step forward,” Herrera said.

But the next day, once the plane flew past, the migrants knew they were going back home. One of his companions prayed aloud. Herrera, overcome with grief, vomited.

“Over 15 hours at sea, under the sun and rain, all in vain,” he said, weeping.

The migrants were picked up and transferred to another Coast Guard ship where other Cubans were being held. They were brought back to to the island on May 31, weeks before the protests kicked off.

“There’s hundreds of people who, like me, are desperately waiting to see how this plays out,” Herrera said. “They’re waiting to leave -- I’m sure of it.”

Herrera was released from Cuban quarantine June 5. He quickly began seeking passage on another boat.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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