Irina Echarry

Illustration by Carlos
Illustration by Carlos

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.


Irina Echarry

Irina Echarry: I enjoy reading, going to the movies and spending time with my friends. Many of the people I love are dead, or are no longer in Cuba. I will do my best to transmit my thoughts, ideas or worries via these pages so you can get to know me. I will give an idea of my age, since it helps explain certain things. I’m over thirty-five, and I think that’s enough information. I don’t have any children yet, or nieces or nephews. There are days when I transform myself into a child with no age at all in order to see life from another angle. It helps me break the monotony and survive in this strange world.

8 thoughts on “Leaving Cuba… Where To?

  • You are so right Olgasintamales! There are so many of the Castro communist regime sycophants in these pages who would try to convince others that the Cubans who flee their homeland do so for economic not political reasons. They know little or indeed nothing of the daily lives of Cubans, of the repression supervised by MININT, of the fear of being overheard criticizing the Castro regime, of the constant pressures of political indoctrination throughout school years and throughout the communities where the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of Cuba fulfills its role of pursuit of the cult of the personality with pictures of Fidel, Raul and Che plastered over buildings and graffiti like slogans quoting them.
    As you are able to claim with joy, that you are FREE, I know Cubans from my own community who have fled and taken enormous to achieve freedom. Once having the security offered in capitalist countries, they have returned to visit their families and friends in Cuba where only last month we were able to welcome a young mother who was a teacher in our community as a visitor in our home when she returned to Cuba as a free woman because she took risks similar to your own.
    I shall be at home in Cuba for Christmas and the New Year celebrations Olgasintamales and will at midnight as the clock strikes, send a rocket into the night sky on your behalf!

  • Well, i did throw myself on the ocean with my 2 children 5 and 7 years old and I would do it again if I have to. No only for economic reason but the fact I have access to this side and Cubans don’t would be enough for a person that understand freedom. But I live in NYC, I can move to anywhere in this country ( and Cubans can’t even in their own) I can read any papers, travel, associate myself with anyone politically, can get out of my home with a sign that say whatever I want, the fact I’m FREE is soooo worthy that you probably don’t understand because you probably born in freedom in the USA or Canada.

  • I agree Dan that indoctrination by the Castro communist regime has played a role in the ever increasing number of young Cubans who are fleeing their homeland. From as young as 18 months, the educational system is designed to install support for communism and its accompanying dictatorship. Every classroom is plastered with images of Fidel and Raul Castro and the long deceased Guevara. Every school text book is written in support of communism.
    But the intelligence of so many young Cubans has cast aside the system described and caused them to risk their lives to achieve the level of freedom that you and I are privileged to enjoy. It is that very freedom that permits us to openly debate and to openly disagree. Cubans living within Cuba are denied such privilege.

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