By Ivett de las Mercedes
HAVANA TIMES — On Friday, March 4, a group of twenty-seven young Cubans set out from Bahia Honda, in the province of Artemisa, headed for the United States. They had built their vessel – approximately six meters long – together. They carried water, food and a big bag of hope.
The next day, the engine broke down and they spent two agonizing weeks out at sea. The dream of a better future left them. 29-year-old Jorge Mendoza Correa, who lives in Candelaria, was one of the young men on the raft. He tells us of his experiences.
Jorge Mendoza Correa: We were twenty-five miles from Tortuga Key when the engine broke. It was overheating and we didn’t have a large enough container to pour water on it and cool it down. As we were making good progress and hadn’t run into any obstacles, we decided to use the water in the tanks we took with us in the engine. I think we were overconfident and didn’t think to leave some for us. Then we were stranded out at sea. Cargo boats and planes went past us, some kilometers away, and no one would rescue us, even though we made signals and yelled. We became more and more desperate as the days passed. There were huge waves, the sun was scorching hot.
HT: Did you take anything with you for the sun and the cold?
JMC: We were protected, but one begins to take things off because they’re bothersome and they start hurting your skin. During the day, you have to put the sweaters out to dry so you can use them to protect yourself from the cold at night. You also have to be careful they don’t fly off in strong winds.
HT: You were sitting the whole time? How did you sleep?
JMC: We had lost a stabilizer, something that keeps the vessel from tipping over or sinking, so we had to balance the weight on board. Some were on one side and the rest on the other. You couldn’t stand, because that would have made the vessel tip. We were constantly throwing water out. We slept like that, in an uncomfortable position. Whenever we’d fall asleep, a wave would come along and soak us. We often threw water on ourselves to cool off a bit, and we’d see the sharks. They never attacked us. We had dolphins next to us often.
HT: What happened when you ran out of food?
JMC: After six days at sea, we had run out of food and used up all the water in the containers. Someone had the idea of drinking our own urine, someone else said it was harmful, that it has ammonia. I was the first to do that. I urinated, filtered the pee with a sweater. Drinking that was horrible, but you get used to it. What also saved us were the remoras. We’d eat them raw. There was a nurse among us that would draw blood, and we’d drink that. We each had our own syringe.
My nephew was with us and taking care of him was one of things that kept me strong. I couldn’t let anything happen to him. My brother-in-law had also come. We became one family.
HT: On a stranded raft, without water or food and the sun beating down on you, anything can happen. The twenty-six persons on board knew each other, you planned the voyage together. How did you deal with your losses?
JMC: It was painful. We keep constant watch to make sure no one drank salt water or wet their lips when they threw water on them to cool off. If that happened, you’d get killer diarrhea. We faced very difficult moments. The first was when one of the women started to hallucinate. She became very aggressive, irritated. She wasn’t herself. The next day, she apologized, but I noticed she was drinking cologne. She told me it refreshed her. At noon, she fainted. We carried her, tried to wake her up, but she was gone. Her face had changed. Her heart was beating more slowly and she began to contract. I told the others I couldn’t feel her pulse. The nurse confirmed she had passed away. We decided to leave her on the raft, covered, hoping a ship would rescue us and we’d be able to take the body back to land. As the hours passed, the corpse began to decompose. It was too hot out and the body began bleeding everywhere. We had to throw the body overboard to avoid the spread of an infection or epidemic.
There was another kid from San Cristobal, from the Marti neighborhood, to be specific. He was very weak the moment we set sail. He was vomiting a lot and didn’t want to eat. When he became delirious, we knew he must have drunk salt water at one point. He would call out to his mother and daughter. He grew very pale and started to contract. We knew he wouldn’t be around long.
The third had burnt his feet and they were destroyed. I had never seen flesh like that. He would complain about the pain a lot. He agonized till death. The day before the rescue six more people died. Do you know what it’s like to lose six people you know in a day? Nine died in total. If the cruiser hadn’t rescued us, no one would have been left alive. I don’t think I’ll ever forget those days.
HT: Were you afraid? What was going through your mind?
JMC: I thought I would die also. We were stranded somewhere where you couldn’t see anything, neither planes nor cargo ships, for several days. The GPS stopped working because the batteries got wet. One day, we smelled a swamp. We were probably close to a key, but the current drags you along. We didn’t have anything to light the way with, the lighters had also gotten wet.
I thought of those who died, people I’d known since childhood, and about how their relatives would react. Everyone probably thought we were dead after so many days out at sea. I would think of my son, my mother, my hopes, about what would happen in a few hours’ time. I couldn’t cry, I don’t know why. The others prayed, especially the two women. Sores formed on my buttocks from so much sitting. I also got sores on my legs. I didn’t even have the strength to scoop water out of the raft. There was unbearable silence all around. The sea is terrible, especially at night, when it’s cold. Sometimes, you can’t take it. At first, we would huddle, but, as days passed, we couldn’t even touch one another because of the sores and the burns. During storms, there were waves as high as twelve meters. There was tension trying to keep the raft balanced, as we didn’t have the stabilizer. We had to take some planks from the raft to use as rows and it didn’t work. The currents were too strong.
HT: What happened when you saw the cruiser?
JMC: We saw the cruiser in the distance. It was the early morning of March 18. We planned not to yell or signal at it until it was close, as that hadn’t worked previously. We tried to get as close as possible, we started to yell and make signals using the tanks. The cruiser moved away a bit and suddenly lit us up with floodlight. But it took some time to approach us, perhaps it was waiting for an order. The cruiser security came and we told them some of us were ill. They asked us if we wanted water or if we wanted to be rescued. We asked to be rescued. We got on in groups of four until all eighteen of us were safe. The cruiser was coming from Tampa, it was called the Royal Caribe. I am very grateful for their attentions and care, and the rescue most of all. We couldn’t have survived another day.
HT: You couldn’t have even gone on with water?
JMC: We were very weak. We had sailed past Florida. We couldn’t have endured another day under the sun.
HT: What happened on board the cruiser?
JMC: We were put in wheelchairs. A Spanish nurse took our blood pressure. We drank water and energy drinks. We couldn’t start eating all of a sudden, only fruit and light meals. They also gave us clothing and shoes. We spent a whole day in the cruise ship. They treated us magnificently, but the experience was dampened by sadness. In total, two women and seven men had died.
HT: What happened after the rescue?
JMC: The cruiser left us in Cozumel, Mexico. The marines put us on a speedboat and we reached Puerto Ventura in 45 minutes. Then, there was a four-hour journey to Quintana Roo, accompanied by immigration officials. They received us there. The nurse from the immigration center saw us and gave us medication. No one spoke to us about the law. We had arrived on Saturday, March 19, and, on Tuesday the 22nd, they explained they had to send out some information with our photos and IDs to the Cuban consulate, then wait fifteen working days.
During that time, the Cuban consulate had to decide whether it would allow us to continue towards the United States or repatriate us. If there’s no reply, immigration sends out the information again and there’s a 45-day waiting period. In the event the consulate does not reply within 60 days, they let you go. We were hoping they would let us continue on our way. We were in a place that felt like a prison, even though they make a point of telling you you’re not imprisoned, but under protection. Four of us were taken to the hospital. One had anesthesia administered to him for the treatment of his burns and the sores on his feet. He was able to continue on his way and has already made it to the United States. He was the only one who made it.
HT: After that whole ordeal, what was it like to know you were going back to Cuba?
JMC: I clung to hope till the last moment. I don’t have relatives in the United States that could have help me pay for a lawyer, but we were confident they would let us go.
At eleven at night on March 23, we had heard rumors they were sending us back to Cuba, and so it was. It was a five-hour journey from Quintana Roo to Kumal, and from there to Cancun, all under maximum security.
We left on the first flight, at 7 am. When we arrived at the airport here, State Security came and made us fill out some forms. Then, they did some tests and told us we would be taken to Valle Grande. We spent five days there. They explained to us we weren’t prisoners. When they interviewed us, they questioned our testimony. They blamed us for the deaths. It was very painful for me to throw those people overboard, we knew them all, we loved them, we had grown up together. Then, we had the bitter experience of having to deliver only some of their clothes to their families.
After we spent those five days at Valle Grande, they interrogated two of us again. On the 29th, they put us on a bus and dropped us off at the Candelaria highway.
HT: Would you do it again?
JMC: Perhaps. I’ve never had any political problems. I have a Bachelor’s in Education. I earned 500 pesos (around 20 USD) a month, which isn’t enough for anything.
The psychological impact has been huge. I can’t sleep remembering what happened, the agony, the hunger, the despair. When I meet with a relative of someone who died, they immediately ask me what happened and, even though one tries to conceal some details, my words betray me.
I believe we deserved to make it, because of everything we went through. When I boarded the plane back to Cuba, my plans went to hell. I was dead inside. Before I left, I was working as a chemistry teacher at a school. Now, I don’t even have that and I have to maintain my six-year-old kid. If I ever try again, I have to be more prepared. It’s no easy task. You put your life at risk.