A revisit to the Cuban Balsero crisis and the people who found freedom in America
Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago recalls the stories of Cuban refugees she met two decades ago in the Guantánamo camps and how they carved out new lives in America.
When the tiny Guantánamo-bound jet took off from the Fort Lauderdale airport, the door handle fell into my lap.
The handful of journalists on board laughed nervously, eyeing the ripped roof cover and beat-up seats of the Fandango Airlines commuter under contract by the federal government to shuttle journalists to the U.S. Naval base on the eastern end of Cuba.
“I hope this is not an omen,” I remember someone saying.
The unsettling start of our trip that crisp day in 1994 was like an omen, but it was the least of our worries. We were on our way to report on the lingering limbo of the Cuban balseros without a country and enduring wholesale detention in a tent-city metropolis set up by the Clinton Administration in a remote no-man’s land.
It had already been an extraordinary year.
That summer, furious at unprecedented protests and chants of “Freedom!” rising from people gathered at the seafront Malecón in Havana, Cuban leader Fidel Castro threatened to unleash another exodus — and he made good on it, allowing people to leave the island by whatever means.
In a desperate bid to flee, some 35,000 men, women and children took to the high seas in flimsy homemade rafts and quickly assembled boats. Some made it to South Florida. Some died in the attempt. But most were interdicted at sea in what became the largest and most-expensive search-and-rescue operation undertaken by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The balseros, as the rafters were nicknamed after their ingeniously constructed vessels, were ferried en masse to Guantánamo and packed into dusty tent-city camps with names like Camp Kilo, Camp Oscar and Camp Mike, which multiplied into Kilo Two, Oscar Three, etc., as the numbers of people to be housed grew, day by day.
The refugees lived under drab-olive and yellow tents in an unusually arid landscape under the strictest military rule. When I first visited, they had not had any communication with family members, who didn’t know whether their loved ones had died at sea or made it to Guantánamo.
The “ balsero crisis” would play out here largely in seclusion, except for infrequent media and political visits, until the last Cuban was flown to Miami in 1996.
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