Cuban Boat People

Playboy featured an interview with Fidel Castro in the November 2012 issue, and it got me to thinking about the Cuban refugees and what they went through to get out of Communist Cuba.

Some of them slid out under the cover of darkness in boats so small that I wouldn’t have gone a mile offshore let alone traveled 100 miles across the open ocean, with no land in sight. Think about that. Imagine yourself in a rowboat in the middle of the ocean, or on a raft.

Not all refugees had to sneak out of Cuba, however. Not long after Fidel Castro took power, he sanctioned a mass exodus. It’s known as the Mariel Boatlift crisis, and it took place in 1980. With the blessing of Fidel Castro, over 150,000 Cubans left their homeland and made their way to Florida. They traveled by boat, but they didn’t have to worry about looking over their shoulder for fear of being caught. Castro wanted them out.

It gave Fidel Castro an opportunity to rid Cuba of anti-Communists who weren’t on board with the new regime, while emptying out the jails and mental institutions, and he did just that. Not all of the Mariel Boatlift refugees hailed from questionable backgrounds, however, and many ordinary Cuban citizens who just wanted a better life were on the boats. Still, Fidel Castro was a genius for using the opportunity to give boat people a bad name, and make sure that Americans wanted no part of them in the future.

Just the stigma of being in prison was enough to give you a bad name, even if you were in prison for attempting to buy food on the black market. But amidst the economic refugees, political refugees, and innocent jailbirds, some seriously scary bad guys made it out as well, and they brought their badness to the United States.

One such bad guy was Julio Gonzalez Acosta, who by some accounts was simply a military deserter kicked out of a Cuban prison and forced onto a boat during the Mariel Boatlift. In America, he became an arsonist and mass murderer in the Happy Land fire. Other Cuban refugees committed murder, and even founded gangs.

Castro utilized the bad apples to ensure that Americans would send future boat people back to Cuba, even though most were simply hard-working human beings who hoped for a brighter future, such as baseball player Barbaro Garbey.

Garbey definitely found his happy land in the United States, playing baseball with the Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers, and even playing in the World Series in 1984 on the winning team. The list of baseball players who defected from Cuba is pretty long, though few of them arrived with the Mariel Boatlift refugees.

Castro’s condoning of the Mariel Boatlift had another benefit for him. It reduced the ranks of citizens against Fidel Castro, and thus ensured his ability to reign without the people rising up against him.

In the meantime, boats were sailing out of Cuba in droves, and not all of the refugees had access to decent boats. They were escaping on anything that could float, including rafts, and small boats that broke down or ran out of gas long before they reached the American shore.

The U.S. Coast Guard, Marines, Navy, Army, and Air Force were called into duty to assist the refugees that were perishing on the open waters, in a humanitarian effort. The refugees were sick, hungry, and dehydrated, and collectively they were known as the Marielitos.

The 1980 Mariel Boatlift was not the first mass migration out of Cuba. In the 1960s, parents sent their children to the United States during Operation Peter Pan. More than 14,000 kids left their homes and families. Some ended up in American foster homes, while others were taken in by family members already living in the U.S. This was an organized exodus which apparently took place by airplane, and even today we don’t know who all of the children were, or what became of them.

As for the boat people, they didn’t all end up with new lives in America. Some were returned to unknown fates in Cuba. The U.S. adopted a wet foot/dry foot policy, where if boat people succeeded in landing on U.S. shores, they would have a shot at asylum, but if they were caught on the open seas before landing, they were usually sent back to Cuba.

One group who didn’t go the distance were the Truckonauts. Twelve Cubans built a raft out of an old pickup truck — a 1951 Chevy pickup painted dark green. How does a pickup truck float, you ask? By way of 55-gallon oil drums, which turned the truck into a pontoon.

The men, women, and even a baby floated on the truck raft for 31 hours in shark-infested waters before they got caught 40 miles off the coast of Florida. The refugees were sent back to Cuba, and the truck was sent to the bottom of the sea by the U.S. in a round of machine gun fire, hoping to deter copycats.

It didn’t work, because three of the Truckonauts made another attempt, this time in a 1959 Buick which was painted mint green. The car itself had been welded in such a way as to ensure that it landed still fully functional, and with all of its tires, so that once they landed, they could discard the boat parts and drive off into the American sunset.

Perhaps if the vehicles had been painted ocean blue, they’d have blended in and made it to shore. They came so close that they could actually see the shoreline, but again, the Truckonauts were caught. This group, which included a medical anesthesiologist, wasn’t sent back to Cuba, they ended up in Costa Rica to start new lives.

Another Truckonaut group tried harder to blend in with the ocean, and escaped in a floating truck raft painted blue. This was another of the original Truckonauts making a new attempt in a 1949 Mercury station wagon. They were caught by the U.S. Coast Guard before they could make it to shore, but they were admitted into the U.S. You can see photos of some of the Truckonaut “boats” as they floated on the ocean on the Floating Cubans website.

Over a million Cubans risked sailing the open ocean in everything from pleasure boats to inner tubes. Some of them died along the way, and their fellow travelers had to make hard decisions. Do you continue traveling with a stinking dead body, or do you throw the body of your parent, spouse, or child into the ocean? One man had to watch the body of his dead father be ripped to shreds by sharks, and eaten. Can you even imagine how he must have felt?

The distance from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida is about 106 miles. Can you imagine traveling over 100 miles on a raft, or inner tube, or even a rowboat? I’ve been on a small craft without a motor in the open ocean just far enough out not to see land, and I’ll tell you, it’s seriously scary. You realize just how puny you are when it’s just you, and the great big ocean full of fish that want to eat you. Life for them in Cuba must have been truly awful to even risk such a journey knowing that you might die along the way.

To read one person’s story first-hand about his life in Cuba, particularly a Cuban prison, the book Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag by Armando Valladares comes highly recommended. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve heard that it’s a true story that will absolutely horrify you.

For a documentary movie that follows the journey of seven Cuban boat people across the ocean on homemade rafts, and their subsequent fate, you can watch Balseros. This is also on my to-watch list, so I can’t comment personally. However, reading the reviews brought tears to my eyes. One review claims that the documentary doesn’t paint an accurate picture of the Balseros, or raft people, of Cuba, as it focuses on the poorest and most uneducated of the immigrants, rather than the educated, white or blue collar immigrants. Allegedly this was the only documentary that Fidel Castro would officially allow, perhaps to dissuade Americans from accepting the Balseros and their immigrant dreams, instead turning their immigrant dreams into alien nightmares.

* * * * *

For alien nightmares of an otherworldly kind, follow my journey from childhood to adulthood as UFO alien nightmares haunted me at night even as a young child who knew nothing of extraterrestrials or grey aliens or UFOs flying the skies.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, we were innocent of knowledge, because there was no internet or cable news to spread information far and wide. Computers didn’t exist, cell phones didn’t exist, digital cameras didn’t exist, portable phones of any kind didn’t exist, and the news came from our local newspapers or one of three TV channels. That’s all we had… just three mainstream TV channels plus a public television channel which back then didn’t have the rich variety of programs they do today. So there was nothing to plant a seed in a young child’s brain that would trigger nightmares of little grey aliens…

  • Alien Nightmares: Screen Memories of UFO Alien Abductions

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