Twelve Cuban migrants traveling on a small metal boat with a makeshift sail made landfall on Miami Beach Tuesday morning. They said they were at sea for six days.
The group — including 11 men between 18 and 34 years old, a 16-year-old girl, and a dog named Chiquitica — said they are from Caibarién, a small municipality on the north coast of Villa Clara in central Cuba.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
They landed on the beach between the swanky Delano and the Ritz-Carlton hotels, off Lincoln Road, before noon.
The group arrived sunburned and a bit dehydrated but otherwise all were in good health and upbeat spirits. The group was taken into custody by the U.S. Border Patrol for processing.
“They’ve been in the water for a few days, but they are in good shape,” said Border Patrol Agent Brett Overton. “Now we’ll take fingerprints, identify who they are, and we’ll put them in the system.”
The precarious boat measured about nine feet long, and was propelled by a sail and oars.
The fact that they made it to land will likely mean they will be able to stay under a U.S. policy known as wet-foot, dry-foot. Under that policy, Cubans who reach U.S. soil can stay while those interdicted at sea are generally returned to the island.
The migrants said they had been planning the trip for a month and had tried to flee previously but decided against setting out to sea due to foul weather.
They finally set sail on Thursday and described a harried journey, with inclement weather, and nothing but peanuts, nuts and water for subsistence.
“The trip was very bad,” said Carlos Alberto Braña García, 22. “There was a lot of wind, a lot squalls, a lot of swells.”
Braña García said it wasn’t until Monday night that they saw lights from a distance. By then, they were out of food and water.
“God helped us and brought us here,” said Braña García. “I can’t believe we made it. My head is spinning, knowing I was out at sea and was able to get here.”
“Now I want to drink a cold beer, watch good television, see friends I have here and haven’t seen in a while, and trust in God to give me a better future,” he said. “I want to work to have a good future.”
Said Laudel Borges, 21: “I want to work and enjoy freedom.”
“This is an incredible dream,” said Yunielki Rodríguez Lugones. “Now we have to move forward.”
Pedro Campos Armas said the number 20 turned out to be his lucky number. He had tried to leave Cuba 19 other times.
“We saw ourselves practically dead,” he said. “We were praying to all the saints, praying, under terrible weather. But when we opened our eyes, we had faith in God, and when we opened our eyes, we saw the lights of the United States.”
Eduardo Manso Vita said he wanted to come to the United States so that he could help his children who are going hungry in Cuba.
“My children are starving to death,” Manso Vita said. “Now I can help them because there are jobs and money here. Long live Obama and everyone who is here!”
Fred Mehr, who works at the Beach Hut of the Delano Hotel, witnessed the landing.
“At first, I thought a cabana was taken into the water by the wind,” Mehr said.
But when he approached the water, he saw the shabby boat and a group of people splashing to shore.
“They ran out of the boat, their eyes were wide open,” he said. “When they realized that they had arrived safely, they were hugging each other and then sat around. They did a little prayer.”
Suddenly, one of the men went back to the boat. He reached in and pulled something out. That’s when Mehr saw what the man had in his hands. It was Chiquitica, the dog.
At some point, a U.S. flag was unfurled and one of the migrants wrapped himself in it. It was not clear if the group had brought the flag with them on the trip or if someone handed it to them.
Mehr and his colleagues gave the migrants water. Somebody handed them a cellphone so they could call their relatives in Cuba.
“I have seen this on movies so many times, and now it happened to me,” Mehr said.
Peter Resnick, who was vacationing at the Ritz-Carlton with his wife, watched the drama unfold from their ocean-view room.
“I saw a sail. As it got closer, we saw the people on the boat. They jumped out as soon as they approached the land. It was incredible,” said Resnick, before heading back home to Paris, Texas.
Several people sunning themselves on the sand surrounded the refugees when they got to shore. Miami Beach police also showed up and escorted the migrants to a shady spot in the shadow of a lifeguard stand, where they were treated by rescue workers.
“Welcome to America!” shouted a woman from a distance.
Added a man in shorts, a T-shirt and sunglasses: “This is what freedom means!”