Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Finding Cuban rafters at sea poses dilemma for boaters

Manny Lemus Jr. and his fishing buddies spotted these Cuban rafters off the coast of South Florida on Sunday. They were later interdicted by the Coast Guard and repatriated.
Manny Lemus Jr. and his fishing buddies spotted these Cuban rafters off the coast of South Florida on Sunday. They were later interdicted by the Coast Guard and repatriated. Courtesy of Manny Lemus Jr.

When the Miami men aboard a fishing vessel spotted the rafters in serene open seas, the Cuban balseros were disoriented and paddling the wrong way — back to the island.

The captain of the 37-foot SeaHunter participating Sunday in the Skippers Dolphin Tournament out of Key Largo felt “iffy” about taking any action other than calling the U.S. Coast Guard. But the Cuban-Americans on board insisted that they felt obligated to reach the rafters — eight sunburned men huddled in a Styrofoam-and-wood raft.

They wanted to talk to them, render aid if necessary.

“It was very emotional for me,” Manny Lemus Jr., 39, told me Friday. “My father and grandfather were rafters back in 1969, one of the first.”

They approached the rafters, handed them food and water, and learned that they had been at sea for five days guided by a rudimentary GPS, now with a dead battery.

“They begged us not to call the Coast Guard – and we didn’t,” Lemus said.

Everyone knew that along with Coast Guard rescue came repatriation, a ride back to the life the rafters risked their lives to flee. But the Cuban-Americans also knew that they could not act on their hearts’ desire to tow or take the men to safety on land — an act for which they could face people smuggling charges.

What to do? What was legal? What was morally right?

They may not be the same thing.

As backdrop of a new U.S.-Cuba policy, a dramatic yet familiar Cuban balsero mini-exodus is playing out in the high seas between the two countries.

The only witnesses often are fishermen who come upon the rafters or their empty homemade contraptions, a sign of interdiction by the Coast Guard, which leaves at sea the rafts they can’t destroy or tow.

Sometimes, the empty raft is a hint of the worst — death at sea.

All these issues — and not knowing the ultimate fate of the eight Cubans — are still tormenting Lemus, service manager at his father’s Manny’s Auto Service.

He was one of several boaters who ran into the group. All handled the situation slightly differently — but not one picked up the Cubans to help them reach land for fear of being prosecuted by U.S. authorities.

“You can get into a lot of trouble for doing that,” Lemus said.

Quite a different scenario from the boatlift of 1980, when Cuban exiles rented every vessel available from Miami to Key West and set out to pick up relatives at the port of Mariel.

So Lemus and his friends did what they thought was the next best thing to rescuing: They pointed the rafters toward the lighthouse on shore and tried, unsuccessfully, to find a battery for the GPS.

The Coast Guard says there’s only one legal — and safe —– thing to do in a case like this: Call them.

“You can give them water, food, throw them an extra life jacket if you have it,” Petty Officer Mark Barney told me. “Anything more than that, it would be putting themselves in potential threatening situation. They are undocumented migrants so you really don’t know who these people are.”

Try telling that to a Cuban-American who has lived the story. The thought that they were in a perilous situation with strangers never crossed Lemus’ mind.

“A lot of people don’t report for personal reasons. They don’t agree with laws or they feel bad about doing that. When you do that, you assist somebody in getting to the United States and it can be used against you,” Barney warned. “Towing can be misconstrued as smuggling.”

If people don’t like the Wet-Foot, Dry Foot policy, which dictates that Cubans that don’t make it to land are to be repatriated, “call your congressman,” Barney said.

But who thinks that way confronted with human drama at sea?

Rodney Barreto, who was out fishing with his wife Shelia and came upon the same rafters later in the day about 20 miles off Key Largo, sees the legal situation as “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Barreto, former chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and chairman of the South Florida Super Bowl Host Committee, gave the rafters water and oranges.

Again, the men pleaded with him not to call the Coast Guard — and pounded on the sides of the raft to show him how sturdy they felt it was, and how it could carry them for the next stretch. They were so close.

“They were very proud of their raft,” Barreto said.

But it was too late.

Someone already had called the Coast Guard — a boater who was a Marine and felt it was the right thing to do, Barreto was told — and there they were.

“It was very sad that they got picked up,” Lemus said.

Barreto filmed the Coast Guard rescue — and the men’s disappointment, which they accepted with humor with another request: “Put us on television!”

Barreto, whose grandfather came to Miami from Cuba in the early 1900s after he heard about Henry Flagler’s railroad, said he, too, was affected by the experience.

“Stop and think what it means for somebody to get on a Styrofoam raft and go out to sea not knowing what could happen out there,” he said. “Things have to be pretty bad to do that.”

Barreto posted his photos and video on Facebook, where people chimed in with stirring commentary about the increasing number of rafters arriving on our shores or being interdicted at sea.

“Next time we’ll make it!” you can hear one of the rafters call out on Barreto’s video, as if he were not only consoling himself but also those who wanted a happier ending.