HAVANA TIMES — In 1994, when trucks carrying homemade rafts were used to go past my building and head towards the coast, I couldn’t imagine that the story of balseros in Alamar would be repeated over so many years. At that time, I remember shocking scenes, families anxious about one of their relatives disappearing and people hopeful that they would find a new life.
At what is called Russian Beach, I got to see a babalao carry out a ritual on a pregnant woman: under his whispered prayers, a live duck walked over the girl’s entire body. When he’d finished, he threw the duck to the water and, like in a freestyle swimming competition, several young people who were watching the ritual like I was from the shore, dived into the water with one single goal: to catch the bird and satisfy their appetite. One of them came out victorious, raising the duck in his hand and causing the audience to clap euphorically. That ironic scene however, far from making me laugh, made me drown in my tears.
Balseros are still making the headlines [although not in the Cuban media]; I read the articles and, in the coldness of statistics, it’s impossible to assess the anxiety of the protagonists here. I become overwhelmed, I imagine the journeys, I try to understand the motives: but it’s all so distant. Seeing it is a different thing altogether: experiencing it must be heartrending. The images remain imprinted on my memory like fixed squares, but this time it’s not like a one-off sketch, a color that seduces us or an attractive landscape: we’re not talking about a painting but about life. And, of course, about death too.
In July this year, I witnessed an illegal exit, people had loaded their belongings onto a rickety boat, they were just waiting for fuel so they could take off. It was as if they were filming some Sunday cop show and the Cuban Coast Guard showed up at the exact moment that they had just lifted on board the last oil barrel and were heading towards the sea. A restless sea, with a high tide. Twilight’s scarce light let us see how the raft slowly entered the Cojimar cove. I never found out whether they managed to reach high sea or not.
A few days ago, I was walking my dogs along the coast and I ran into a truck which was unloading bags, sticks, tanks and a small rustic raft. Then a group of several people gathered around it. Another exit, I thought.
This was even more striking because a cold front was coming and there were huge waves. The small boat would have to carry over a dozen people and, suddenly, an unexpected argument broke out.
A girl was holding the hand of a child who was barely 6 with all her might. A man insisted that her son wasn’t on the list; she said that she wouldn’t go if he didn’t go, and that she had already paid. But you didn’t pay for him, the man responded. And this carried on for over 20 minutes.
One of the trees served as a hiding place for me. I kept waiting for the Coast Guard to show up and to catch them in the middle of their fight; it wasn’t just verbal anymore, gestures had turned up the volume, and the cries of the small boy added another tone to the scene. I couldn’t imagine myself paying for such an uncertain journey, exposing others to this adventure, much less fighting about a serious matter at a time when you’re supposed to be leaving secretly.
My dog barked (or said farewell) to the future rafters as if they were old acquaintances.
Night was already falling fast upon us, at that time it can be dangerous to walk alone around here. I left.
I walked my way home wishing that the boy wouldn’t get on board that raft, even though his mother thought that this journey was their salvation, even though the man only cared about money. I hope the small boy hasn’t added to the list of those disappeared at sea, he’s too small to decide to risk his life or not on such an uncertain journey.
But I do know that many other children will follow him, along with their parents, trying to reach the US in this way. Firstly because there is no future here in Cuba, and secondly, because when they arrive, the “wet foot, dry foot” policy will open up the doors to a different life. That is if they make it.