At least two Cubans drowned and 23 were rescued after their boat capsized during an attempt to escape from the island, and Border Guards tried to deny assistance to a group that had been in the water for three days, one of the survivors said Tuesday.
The survivor, Mirja Yancy Naranjo Ortiz, a member of the anti-Castro group Independent and Democratic Cuba (CID), said Tuesday that two bodies have been recovered, one would-be-migrant remained missing and the 23 others were back in Cuba.
“What we went through was an odyssey,” Naranjo, a former star player in Cuba’s national women’s softball team, told El Nuevo Herald by phone from her hometown of Manzanillo in eastern Cuba. There was no way to immediately confirm her account.
Naranjo said the 26 met at 3:30 a.m. on Sept. 1 on the Cauto River near Manzanillo but were spotted around 10 a.m. still on the river by a Border Patrol boat that “made big waves to try to tip us over. They said it was to make sure our boat was good.”
“They tried to stop us and we screamed that we were ready to die but that we would not return,” she said.
That patrol boat escorted the group to a point about one mile offshore, then headed home, but another approached and launched the same big-wave maneuver a second time around 3p.m. near a place known as la Cucharilla, Naranjo added.
The group kept going, but at 8 p.m. on Sept. 3 their boat started to take on water. They used cellphones to alert relatives in Manzanillo who went to the Border Guards to ask that a rescue boat be sent, she said. But the Border Guards said they were prohibited from going to sea at night.
After the boat sank, one group of 10 men and two women that included Naranjo swam in the darkness for hours and eventually latched onto a navigational buoy, taking turns climbing on the buoy itself to rest, Naranjo said.
The next morning, a small fishing boat named Two Grandfathers picked up the two women, left behind water and food for the men and was heading back to land when it picked up four other survivors but left one body in the water, according to the survivor.
The six were arrested and Naranjo was taken to the provincial capital, Bayamo, where she spoke with other survivors and was detained until Sunday.
She returned to Manzanillo and told her tale to CID activist Ubaldo Leon, who posted her tale on the CID Web page late Monday.
Naranjo said another group of about seven survivors wound up on a sandbar until late Thursday, when a second fishing boat spotted them.
The fishermen contacted the Border Patrol and were told to give them life preservers but not take them aboard, Naranjo said.
The fishermen insisted the group was in bad shape and were in the end were allowed to take the survivors to land.
Naranjo added that some of the survivors who organized the escape attempt remain jailed because authorities want to blame them for the deaths.
“The Border Patrol could have rescued us, but they did not,” she said. “And now they want to punish us and evade their own responsibilities.”
El Nuevo Herald calls to the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington seeking comment for this story went unanswered.
Naranjo said the group of 26 was very diverse, with two nurses and one lawyer, “each escaping for our own reasons but all of us because this government is asphyxiating all of us.”
“I am one of the glories of Cuban sport. People know me around the world,” she said. “Outside they would pay $600 for a player like me, but I was getting 400 pesos,” or about $15. “I prefer to die at sea than to live in a jail.”