Desperate rafters court death in rush to escape

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The Independent Online
HAVANA - In the Florida Straits the waves were three metres high. It did not matter. Desperation had reached its limit and yesterday 50 rafts left Cojimar heading for death. The craft, made of sticks, rusty nails and rotten cables, could not beat the sea.

Since dawn, dozens of families had been building rafts in rooms, patios, terraces and on roofs, in a frenzy which gripped the blacks and mulattos of central Havana who had arrived at the coast in old cars, laden with wood, cork and tyres to make their rafts. While the streets of Cojimar turned into a gigantic carpenter's shop, the gulf organised a tropical storm.

Radio and television repeated that the sea was rough and that navigation was dangerous for small boats. And from Miami someone had intercepted a report that said many empty rafts were found on Thursday. This did not matter to Luis. His house was full of wood shavings, cloth and bits of rubber. All morning he had been out looking for cables, nails, tyres and polystyrene foam.

'I don't care if I die. I would prefer it to carrying on as I am, because here there is no food, nor clothing, no future, no freedom nothing.' Luis, his wife and three friends, took to sea on Thursday at sunset. Luis had tried to leave nine times before.

They took their raft from the house down to the water by moonlight. The sea was turbulent.' Go on, dammit,' someone cried, while more than a thousand yelled encouragement from the shore. 'You'll make it.' Luis was almost weeping. He was sure he was going to make it. His wife and family are probably dead now. When his raft disappeared into the night, the waves grew bigger and the weather worsened.

Luis knew the US could change its policy towards the rafters within hours, but he thought the Americans could not detain, or return, those who had left. 'All they need is to stay alive and then we'll see what happens', said a woman who had just said farewell to her two sons.

Translated: Elizabeth Nash