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Dos patrias tengo yo—Cuba y la noche.
I have two countries—Cuba and the night.
On Saturday, November 20, 1999, fifteen Cubans ranging in age from five to sixty-five straggled through a cluster of mangrove trees to the marshy shoreline of Cárdenas, Cuba. There they huddled around a seventeen-foot aluminum handcrafted boat with a fifty-horsepower outboard motor, camouflaged by knee-high pangola grass. Swiftly and quietly they loaded the small craft with everything that they would be taking: cheese and crackers, hot dogs, water and some blankets. All the money they had in the world was stuffed in their pockets.
The group was made up of two extended families, friends of long standing. There was the Rodríguez clan with their two sons, a daughter-in-law, and a next-door neighbor. And there was the Munero family—Rafael, forty-nine, his wife, María Elena, forty-eight, and their two sons. One of their sons, twenty-four-year-old Lázaro Munero, called Rafa by his family, was the mastermind, boat builder and driving force behind the escape. Accompanying him was his girlfriend, Elizabet Brotón, a shy, sweet-faced woman with long, dark hair and bangs running along her broad forehead, who was known as Elisa. With her was her five-year-old son, Elián González.
Then there was another couple in their early twenties—two fleeing lovers and the young woman’s five-year-old daughter. The couple, unknown to most of the others, were the only ones who had paid Rafa for passage on the boat.
All of the fifteen aboard had their own reasons for leaving, their own expectations, their own dreams. Some were seeking more opportunity, some were fleeing a spouse or family in Cárdenas, some loathed Fidel Castro and communism, and some wanted better clothes and a better house. But the glue that bound the group together was love and family: the love of a spouse or a sibling waiting for them in America—the dream of family reunification.
More than half of the group could not swim and several had a dread of the sea. María Elena, Rafael Munero’s wife, was recovering from recent heart problems and, like many working-class women from the country’s provinces, had never learned to swim. For her, the splendid waters that enveloped Cuba’s crocodile-shaped form were to be admired from the shoreline but never entered. María Elena had not been feeling well and had had an ominous presentiment about the crossing. But family was the cornerstone of her existence, and if her husband and sons were leaving, so would she.
Earlier in the evening, Rafael Munero had gone out alone to inspect the boat. Suddenly, he heard footsteps coming from behind him and, alarmed, swung around. Seeing that it was his brother, Dagoberto, who had secretly followed him to the boat, Rafael sighed with nervous relief.
Five days before, Rafael had confided to his younger brother that he and his family planned to flee the country and asked him to come. Dagoberto refused. He had had other opportunities to defect—when two other brothers had done so—but leaving was not for him. He lacked the ambition and energy of his siblings, and Cuba’s socialism provided for his basic needs whether he worked or not. To prove his point, he boasted of having had laparoscopic surgery on his knee. “How much would that cost in the U.S.?” he asked knowingly. For days, the two argued and bickered. At times, Rafael would change his mind and say he wouldn’t go, but after a pep talk from his son, he would recommit to the trip. On and off it went, even through their farewell dinner of roast pork in their cramped apartment, with Juan Gabriel crooning on the tape deck. Dagoberto had swung by around 9:30 in the evening. “The group was all gathered there,” he would later recall. “I saw the couple there with her daughter. She was asking if the sea was rough. I asked her: ‘You’re going with that little girl?’ And she told me yes. I told her: ‘Here the waves are a meter high but out there they are four or five times more, up to ten meters high.’ ”
Dagoberto would not give up. He could not bear to lose Rafael, who had raised him like a son after their father had died when Dagoberto was still a teenager. “I was crying because when someone goes over there you always think the worst. My brother ate his dinner, then he left his place alone. I thought this was my last opportunity to talk to him again. I saw that he went for the brush that is all along the shore and I followed him. And when I got there I saw the boat.”
Circling the narrow homemade boat, Dagoberto could see that parts of it were rusty and that holes in its bottom had been patched with packing materials. “I can’t believe you’re leaving on this piece of shit,” Dagoberto bellowed to his brother. “This is not a boat. It’s garbage! You’re crazy.” But, Rafael had made up his mind and didn’t want to hear any more from him. “We’re leaving on it,” he said, his voice pitched with anger, “and if you’re not coming with us, get out of here and leave me alone!”
There was nothing more to say or do. Angry and wounded, Dagoberto shuffled back to the main road, then made his way home. “I didn’t say goodbye to him. I left him there alone maybe 10:30 that night,” Dagoberto mumbled. “I left and I never saw him again.”
around 6:00 a.m. on Thanksgiving day, Juan Ruiz and his friend Reniel Carmenate were coming ashore after an evening of fishing off Miami’s Key Biscayne. Ruiz said that as they docked they could make out the forms of two people huddling and shivering on the shore by the water’s edge. Nearby was an oversized Russian-made black truck tire. “They were in really bad, bad condition,” said Ruiz. “Their skin was a sickly purple color, all ripply with wrinkles and covered in blisters. I wanted to help them take their clothes off because the material was welded into their skin but I was afraid that their skin would tear. The man was in the worse shape, almost going in and out of consciousness. They kept asking for water but I knew from experience that water could really hurt them unless it was given to them through an IV drip. We called the police and I ran to my truck and got some dry clothes.”
The man was almost delirious; the woman’s bones had decalcified from days of ocean immersion. Their bodies were latticed with the bite marks of fish. “The lady was the one who spoke and told us what had happened,” said Ruiz. “She said they left Cuba with twelve others but that everyone had drowned—including a little boy.” The young couple were the fleeing lovers—thirty-three-year-old Nivaldo Fernández and his twenty-two-year-old girlfriend, Arianne Horta.
Thirty miles farther north off of Fort Lauderdale, Sam Ciancio was out in his cabin cruiser. With him was his cousin Donato Dalrymple, a housecleaner, out for the first time on his cousin’s boat. Ciancio spied a large black inner tube bobbing in the Atlantic and thought he saw the outlines of a large doll inside the tire. But as they steered closer to the tire, they saw it was not a doll but rather a small child tied to the inner tube. Ciancio dove into the water and brought the boy aboard. The trembling child was five-year-old Elián González, who, in a matter of hours, would become the poster boy for both sides of America’s forty-year-old Cold War with Cuba.
The three were the sole survivors of the group that had left Cárdenas in the wee hours of November 22. Elián’s mother, Elisa, and her boyfriend, Rafa Munero, were among the eleven who had drowned—along with his brother, mother, and father. Not far from Elián’s inner tube, the body of sixty-one-year-old Mérida Loreto Barrios, the matriarch of the Rodríguez clan, tethered to the end of a long rope, was found floating over the surface of the waves like bait. Stuffed in her undergarments was $210 in twenty- and ten-dollar bills. She had been the last of her family to die—after witnessing the drowning of her two sons, her husband and her daughter-in-law. Some of the bodies were found a hundred miles away from each other—swept by the driving currents of the Gulf Stream to Key West and as far north as Fort Pierce.
But the bodies of Elisa and her lover, his younger brother and Mérida’s husband were never found. They would join the thousands of others, failed seekers of a better life, in that immense aquatic graveyard—the Florida Straits.
Seeking to put faces on those who died, I went to Cárdenas, Havana and Miami several times over the next two years. There were scores of pieces to find, identify and jiggle into the puzzle. There were two extended families, eleven dead, two adult survivors and two five-year-old children who would become estranged from their grieving parents. But clinging to the bare facts were conflicting stories to reconcile, and personal ambitions and political agendas to sort out amidst a surfeit of grief, rage and shame.
In Key Biscayne’s Crandon Park Marina, the shipwreck survivors Nivaldo and Arianne, wrapped and shivering in blankets, told police detectives the saga of their deadly journey. Then they were whisked away to Jackson Memorial Hospital and later to Arianne’s aunt in Hialeah—where they shut themselves in, rarely speaking about their ordeal. I first met Arianne and Nivaldo in early February 2000 at her aunt’s small home on a torn up and potholed street in Hialeah, the working-class Cuban community that borders Miami. The strains of their ordeal and their new lives were painfully evident. At the time, they had no money, no jobs, no clothes and did not speak English.
Arianne is a small, dark-haired beauty with a sultry beauty mark on her chin. Outwardly, she seemed to have emerged from her ordeal entirely unscathed, her gaze riveted on the present and the future. Phoenix-like, she promptly enrolled in an English school in a Hialeah shopping mall, attending class every night from six to nine and charting out her new life. Soon after her miraculous rescue, she made an appointment at the local peluquería in Hialeah and had dagger-length acrylic nails applied to her fingertips.
At our first meeting, Nivaldo seemed particularly stressed—his legs bobbing nervously, his face drawn and wounded. A light-skinned black man with translucent hazel eyes, he was still unable to sleep. Every evening, he said, he awoke over and over again—revisiting the shipwreck and the days they spent drifting in the water. “When we remember everything that happened, we feel it deeply,” he said softly, “having seen so many people drown.”
Nivaldo was besotted with Arianne, his eyes rarely leaving her. Although he too would like to learn English, he said that one of them had to sacrifice and he was willing to do so. And for the love of Arianne, he was willing to make many sacrifices. It was Nivaldo who had paid the entire fee for the two. He had left behind a wife, a good job and a new house in Cárdenas. He rattled off the fine appliances he had in his home on Calle San José. “I lived a lot better in Cuba,” he told me, “than I’m living here now.” And while he thinks he would like Chicago, where his mother and other relatives live, he has contented himself in Miami because Arianne loves it so.
After surviving a perilous shipwreck and excruciating ordeal in the raging Atlantic, Nivaldo found himself in a home feeling unwelcome. Indeed, when I spoke with her weeks later, Arianne’s aunt couldn’t have been more candid about her feelings. Repeatedly tapping her forearm with two fingers—Cuban for signifying that someone is black—she found my eyes and sighed. Racial prejudice is not uncommon in Miami’s exile community, which is roughly 95 percent white. Local talk radio speculated that had Elián González been black—as are 65 to 70 percent of Cubans on the island—“he would have been tossed back into the sea.” A close friend of the couple said that Arianne’s aunt was uncomfortable with Nivaldo in her home. “Supposedly one room is for them but the aunt doesn’t want Nivaldo sleeping with Arianne. So he has to sleep in the living room.” Pushing back her red-blond hair, the aunt told me that Nivaldo’s arrival had been difficult for her. “For us, it is a very big thing. He is the first black person in our family. We grew up in a time when parents brought us up right. We accept him,” she said with another, deeper sigh, “because he is a good, hardworking man. What can we do?”
Sitting in a Hialeah coffee shop where he was unable to eat or drink anything, Nivaldo said that talking about his ordeal only seemed to make it worse. The voyage was ill fated from the beginning, he said. “The most difficult thing was the trip. It was four days long but we were in the water for three days.” By the time the group left shore it was almost 2:30 in the morning of November 21. Under the shield of darkness on a moonless night, they hoped to evade detection from the Cuban Coast Guard. There were two five-year-olds in tow when they left: Arianne’s beautiful, curly-haired daughter, Estefany, named after Princess Stephanie of Monaco, and Elián, Elisa’s son. While Estefany cried and cowered fearfully from the huge, dark waves, Elián delighted in the adventure. He teased passengers who he said were eating too many of their crackers. Everyone giggled at his precocity; his mother glowed.
The mood on the boat darkened abruptly less than two hours after they took off, when the motor clacked and sputtered, then died. “We could still see land,” recalled Nivaldo. Using oars, they paddled back to the nearest key off Cárdenas. There they hid out for fourteen hours until sunset, then paddled back to Cárdenas at 6:00 p.m.
Although it was clearly a poor omen, Nivaldo said no one was deterred from going except Arianne, who was having second thoughts about bringing Estefany, who was crying and fretting. Elisa had unwavering confidence in Rafa—after all, he had made the trip twice before, with even less of a boat than they had. And she could not bear to be parted from Elián.
While the men repaired the engine, Arianne walked her daughter back to her mother’s home on Calle Vives and returned to the boat alone. It was a fateful, prescient decision that she is certain saved their lives. Had they struggled to save or calm her daughter as the others had done for each other, they too would have drowned.
Rafa repaired the boat by inserting “a piece of scrap metal in the engine from another part of the boat,” according to Nivaldo. “They fixed the engine, it was fine, we left, everything was perfect.” Having lost a full day, they finally motored off at 3:00 a.m. on November 22, a Monday. Arianne said she would never forget the date, because it happened to be her twenty-second birthday “and I spent it in the water.” In lieu of life jackets, they took along three gomas—the large black inner tubes used on Russian-made trucks. The plan was to have seven, but Rafa decided that they could make do with three.