Desde Dentro de Cuba.

Distribuido por Cuba Free Press, Inc. -

April 26, 1999.

A RAFTER WHO NEVER MADE IT By Ariel Tapia, Cuba Free Press.

HAVANA - When the month of August rolls around, Elsa Quinones can't avoid her memories of the sea: The waves, the night, the whirling rough waters...all are there, in her memory.

She has never lived near the beach nor does she have any maritime experience. But the sea holds something that belongs to her. Soon it will be five years since that August 20 of 1994 when her son plus his girlfriend, a nephew and a friend put a raft on a truck, so as to leave it all behind them.

It was a hot summer in Havana. Both the weather and the political climate soared into higher temperatures every passing day. A simple escape attempt by a government tugboat had become a frightful tragedy as well as an international incident.

On the 5th of August a furious crowd had taken over the capitol's seawalk and had started throwing stones and ransacking the off-limits' stores, pouring out their repressed anxieties and cursing the state gods.

Elsa saw all these images at the safe distance provided by the TV screen. She was worried about the young men being arrested...but none of those events or her country in crisis took her sleep away. She had learned to live with the near hysteria which was a daily affair in Cuba.

"To the United States; this time I am really taking off, Mom...this is my chance"

That's where it all really began. Albertico got in from work earlier than usual that day. He entered the door as if pushed by inner springs. "Javier, Diana and Humberto are in agreement."

Everything was stated with wild gesticulations and an exalted look. Elsa knew she would never be able to take that vision out of his mind. After all, he was right...he would never amount to much in Cuba. And now the land of liberty seemed to beckon more than ever.

Albertico neither ate nor slept those days. The receiver he used to tune in the North-American broadcasts was set at 107.5 and he would listen for hours to CMQ and their non-stop programming about the rafter crisis. In spite of the recommendations against going to sea in flimsy rafts and even when those who arrived safely to Guantanamo spoke of the terrible hardships, it only seemed to give him new purpose.

"One had to be there to understand what was going on. It was madness, an obsession. Young kids barely a meter high looking for a group to join. Families that sold everything: Their home, their belongings, everything," she remembers.

That's the way Elsa recalls the atmosphere that surrounded her son until the last day she saw him. The night of August 20 was dark, without the moon, with only a few stars and a calm sea. The four youths decided to leave by way of Cojimar in their dare of the unknown. Their raft was built of four tractor tire inner tubes, lashed together by a frame of aluminum tubing, all wrapped around with green army canvas.

They propelled themselves with four wooden oars screwed on to aluminum tubes, in an effort to cut down on the weight. They carried a sail as well but had not had the time to learn how to use it. The tide and a southern wind helped them get far off the coast with relative ease. The last news they had heard spoke of North American Coastguard boats waiting for rafters just 15 miles from shore.

In between the rowing and a few drinks of rum they hardly noticed the lights from Habana fading. The seawalk lights had provided a sense of security and once they were gone they lost all sense of reference. The compass fooled Humberto who before leaving had reassured everybody that a fisherman had taught him how to use it well. As terror settled on board the worst was yet to come.

Diana says it was a giant wave. Javier claims it was a swirl that sucked them in. Humberto agrees with both but describes it differently: "The sea was calm and all of a sudden it seemed to go down. The water level went down abruptly and then in seconds started going up again."

The raft tipped over and all their water supplies - their most important cargo - were lost. The four eventually found each other after shouting and feeling for each other in the dark for about 10 minutes. But they were able to recover only two of the inner tubes.

The morning sun found them at the limit of their strength. They had been kicking vigorously all through the wee hours thinking that would frighten the sharks away. Albertico proposed going for help with one of the inner tubes. He was so insistent and gave so many reasons. Eventually he convinced the down-hearted crew of castaways. The 22-year-old muscular blond youth said good-bye to his friends, promising to return. They last saw him as he was kicking up a foamy trail behind him.

It was later, in the evening when a Cuban coastguard boat spotted the three castaways. A rope was thrown to them and one by one they climbed aboard. They inquired desperately about their companion. The soldiers shrugged their shoulders, maybe in ignorance or maybe in condolence. Days later it was officially confirmed: Alberto Hernandez, age 22, was lost at sea. Even the U.S. coastguards had no news of him. The survivors told stories of the stream dragging ships out. Of empty rafts and inner tubes just drifting.

The mother of the missing youth moved her home in an effort to get away from her memories. She now whiles away her time working as a manicurist. When she speaks of the sea, she seems to have a keen knowledge of its mysteries.

Ariel Tapia, Cuba Free Press.

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