Cuba: anguish of a shrimp boat exodus

Luis Acosta, a Florida carpenter, scanned the shore of Mariel Harbor with binoculars from the deck of the shrimp boat that had been his home for the past 14 days. He watched the Spanish-made tourist bus he knew was crammed with Cuban refugees appear from behind a cement plant, drive along the scarred hillside, and stop by a warehouse at the base of a dock.

He focused in on the refugees, climbing down from the bus under the watchful eyes of Cuban soldiers toting AK- 47s. Perhaps one of these refugees would be one of the three sons he left behind when he escaped from Cuba 19 years ago in a 22-foot rowboat with 13 other people.

Mr. Acosta was desperate to get his sons out of Cuba. During the past few years he had made several vain attempts. When he heard President Fidel Castro was allowing refugees to leave Cuba in small American boats, Mr. Acosta rushed to the shrimp docks in Tampa, Florida, and staked out a spot for himself on a shrimp boat three days before it finally sailed for Cuba.

Now he was one of thousands of Cuban-Americans bobbing on small boats in Mariel Harbor waiting for what seemed like an interminable time for a voice over a loud- speaker to call his boat to the dock to load refugees.

It had become a war of nerves. Many boats had left empty or at least without any of the relatives they had come to get. For more than a week, Mr. Acosta had said every night, "Tomorrow we will be called. Tomorrow I will get my sons and we will go home."

But every tomorrow had brought disappointment and another day of tedious waiting. Boats were leaving steadily. Shrimp boats, 70 feet long, were loaded with more than 200 refugees apiece. Small pleasure boats that had just barely made the 110-mile crossing from Key West to Mariel were wallowing in the bay's slight chop under the weight of refugees pilling aboard.

Mr. Acosta and the 10 others aboard his shrimp boat had come prepared for a four-or-five-day trip -- a week at the most. They had cut their food to one meal a day and rationed water. They were getting sore from sleeping night after night on the boat's deck.

Would the wait and discomfort be worthwhile? One haughty immigration official told them: "You are wrong if you think you are coming here to get your family out. The first boats came for refugees from the Peruvian Embassy, and we let a couple of their relatives go as a favor."

It became a game of wits between the Cuban-Americans and the officials. The Cuban-Americans would claim their boats would hold a tremendous number of people. The government officers would slash that number in half and perhaps in half again. Once the figure had been determined, the Cuban officials would allow 30 percent of it to be made up of the relatives of people aboard. The anguish came in deciding who to choose and who to leave behind.

"I'm going crazy," one man said. "I have no choice. My wife wanted me to get her mother and father. I want to get my brother and his family. How do you choose?"

And even when the list of relatives they wanted had been filed with the Cuban government, the anguish was not over. How long could they wait until their boat was called? How long would food, money, and patience hold out? How long would the boat's owner agree to keep his craft tied up making no money in Cuba?

Arguments and even fights broke out between captains who wanted to go and Cuban-Americans who wanted to stay. Some Cuban-americans, giving up hope, sided with the captains.

"I may have done my family here more harm than good by coming," lamented one man. "When they heard I was here, they applied to leave. As soon as they did that, the government took away their house and they were fired from their jobs. What happens to them now if they don't leave?"

The shrimp boats were tied together in rafts of three to 12 and, with no source of accurate information, rumors spread from boat to boat. One rumor was that the hostages in Iran had been killed and the United States was about to go to war. Another was that President Castro was going to force all the boats to stay until the American military exercise over at Guantanamo Bay ended.

The shrimp boat captains, some of them Vietnam war veterans, grew edgy. Cuan gunboats were anchored at the harbor exit and around the periphery of the US flotilla.

Mr. Acosta could go ashore and take one of the special buses to a guarded hotel near Havana, If he wanted. The round trip would cost about $20, but he could telephone his relatives from there or take a shower for $2. He could also go to a special cruise ship Cuba had planted in the middle of the US flotilla. A restaurant, bar, gift ship, even a night- club with live entertainment, were aboard.

But he and many of the other Cuban-Americans resented the ways Castro found to entice them to spend their American money.

"I was very hopeless," Mr. Acosta said. "I was told by a colonel I would have no chance of getting my sons because they were of military age and one was a mechanic. His skills were needed in Cuba." But from the crowd of waiting refugees, one called out "Poppa." Mr. Acosta turned round and recognized his son.

With surprise, he rushed to him and fell on his knees, crying like a baby. Soldiers moved toward Mr. Acosta, but two of his compatriots on the boat carried him off quickly.

First the Cuban officials herded refugees aboard the boat who were not family members, until there was hardly a place to sit. Then they said that any family members could go if they found any room aboard. All 39 squeezed in until there were 196 people covering the shrimp boat. There was rejoicing, hugging, and kissing until the boat was well out to sea.

"Iam very, very, happy," Mr. Acosta said with his sons surrounding him. "I thought I was never going to get them. It was worth every sacrifice we made and more."

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