Rafters cling to hope and little more: Hundreds of desperate Cubans are waiting for storms to calm down before setting sail for Florida in their rickety craft

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The Independent Online
HUNDREDS, possibly thousands of Cubans, mostly young men and women, slept on the rocky, oil- stained shore of this poverty- stricken Cuban fishing town last night, ready to launch a flotilla of rickety rafts towards Florida today when a weekend of storms is expected to clear.

The scene last night along the long shoreline of Cojimar, where Hemingway got the inspiration for The Old Man and the Sea, was a nightmarish one of desperation tinged with a ray of hope. Rafts of all shapes and sizes, built for two to a dozen people, were scattered along the blackened rocks on the flattest parts of the shoreline. Some were cordoned off by string as hundreds of curious passers-by wandered along the beach in what had turned almost into a bizarre version of a boat show.

Would-be balseros (rafters) slept in makeshift tents of cardboard, canvas, plastic or whatever materials they could find, waiting alongside their craft for what was close to a tropical storm over the weekend to subside. Cuban weather reports carried on television and radio warned embarcaciones rusticas (rustic craft, an official euphemism for the rafts) not to set sail because of what is known as a 'tropical wave' between here and Florida.

None of them was aware of this week's scheduled Cuban-American talks on migration issues, agreed on Saturday by Washington and Havana.

When informed by reporters, none had second thoughts about casting off, in the hope of surviving several days at sea on craft that you would not bet on making it across the Thames.

In blackness, except for torches and burning cigarette ends, some of the boat people sat on oil-blackened rocks and gazed out across the waves to the North and what they hoped would be their destination around 90 miles away at another renowned Ernest Hemingway haunt, Key West.

Had he lived to see it, the American writer's imagination would have been stretched. This was a story of young men, young women, sometimes children and the sea. The odds were strongly on the latter, on the treacherous Florida Straits, and they knew it. For some, it was almost as though they were preparing for suicide. To all, it was at least a game of Russian roulette. But the alternative of more years of hunger was enough to drive them on.

A 39-year-old who called herself Ovali, the rafters are reluctant to give their names because they say plain-clothes policemen are among the curious, had moved away from her companions and sat pensively on a rock, gazing at her raft. When she first pointed it out I thought she was joking. She must have meant the high one, with the sail, perched at an angle just short of the breaking waves. No, it was the makeshift piece of carpentry to the left on which she was prepared to risk her life. It looked like the seats of two park benches strapped together, with little more than Styrofoam and two lorry tyres. Eight people were planning to board the craft, presumably with their legs dangling over the side despite the sharks.

'If the Lord helps us, we will soon be in the land of liberty, although we will always be Cuban,' said Roberto Romero, 23, the youngest of four men sleeping in a tent alongside a tiny but chunky raft they called Kitrin de la Libertad (Liberty Carriage). It was like a larger version of a wooden baby's cot, based on a couple of oil drums and tyres.

Two zinc sheets formed a rough bow and a lump of aluminium at the top of the canvas sail was designed to reflect the sun to attract passing US rescue aircraft with coastguard cutters.

'She breaks the waves magnificently. We tested her on a seven- mile run the other day and were out and back in six hours,' said Mr Romero. But what if they were picked out by the Americans and taken, like thousands of others last week, to the US military base at Guantanamo on the eastern tip of their island? 'I'd rather live under 51 stars than under one,' he said, referring to the flags of the US and Cuba.

'We're going for the whole 90 miles. Key West or bust, no coastguard for us,' said one of his shipmates, Roy Rogers Bustamente, a black 33-year-old father-of-two named by his father after the screen cowboy. 'If we don't make it, at least I'll have died for a purpose, sacrificing myself for my family,' he said, pulling out photos of his two girls, Mavis Caridad, eight, and Dinailis, five, from the Cuban passport that was in a plastic bag full of possessions he planned to take on the voyage.

They asked me sign their canvas bow cover for good luck so they could tell their relatives in Miami of the British reporter they had met. Others were planning religious services of blessing before launching into the sea. They are understandably superstititious. 'Weeping is forbidden. It brings bad luck. The tears should begin after we set sail,' said one young woman.

The four crew members of the Liberty Carriage insisted they had done their military service and had no criminal convictions. That was a reference to the word put out by government officials that many of those leaving, as in the Mariel boatlift of 1980, were criminals.

'Many of them are criminals. And they must be crazy to go out there,' said Reynaldo Rodriguez, a neatly-dressed 30-year-old among hundreds watching the waiting rafters. Mr Rodriguez, a chef in a leading Havana hotel, who is therefore paid partly in dollars, said: 'Life's not as bad here as they make out. Eighty per cent of the people are with Fidel. Well, let's say it's 70 per cent.

'The revolution has its flaws. It has its ups and downs. But I was born here and I'm going to die here.' His words echoing the official line and rhetoric Mr Rodriguez, who said he cycled the five miles from Havana to Cojimar out of curiosity, repeated one slogan we had seen painted in giant letters on a wall in the port of Matanzas: 'I'm staying.'

(Photograph omitted)