Arturo Cobo, a longtime benefactor of Cuban rafters who landed in the Florida Keys and a Bay of Pigs veteran, died Sunday at the Lower Keys Medical Center in Key West, relatives and friends confirmed. He was 78.
Cobo will be remembered as the founder of the Transit Home in Key West for Cuban refugees, better known as the House of the Balsero, where Cubans who had fled the island aboard homemade boats and inner-tube rafts and made it to the Keys received food, clothing and advice.
“This is a heartfelt loss, not only for activists in the struggle for the freedom of Cuba but for the thousands and thousands of rafters he helped for many decades,” Ramón Saúl Sánchez, leader of the Democracy Movement, said in an interview with Radio Martí.
“He cured their wounds, gave them food and sheltered them, many times with his own money,” said Sánchez, a well-known Cuban activist.
Cobo was born March 12, 1941, in Santiago de las Vegas in Havana province. He fled Cuba in 1960 after realizing that Fidel Castro’s revolution was heading toward communism. He settled in Key West and lived with an uncle.
Shortly after settling in the Keys, Cobo joined Brigade 2506, the Cuban exile paramilitary group. Backed by the CIA, Brigade 2506 invaded Cuba in April 1961 in what would become a disastrous attempt to overthrow the 2-year-old Castro government. The Cuban government captured and imprisoned many of the Brigade members, including Cobo.
On Dec. 23, 1962, a planeload of more than 1,000 imprisoned Bay of Pigs fighters landed at Homestead Air Base, having been released from Cuba’s prisons. Cobo was among those who returned, turning to Cuban activism to help his fellow countrymen.
“The number of people that this great Cuban helped is incalculable. May God hold him in his glory. A great loss to all because of the qualities of this human being,” Omar Hidalgo wrote on Facebook.
Cobo “had a big wall on the Transit Home covered with the names and Cuban addresses and telephone numbers of relatives of rafters who had left Cuba. That information was there in case some day the people who had disappeared turned up,” Raul Arrondo wrote.
“The biggest sadness for Arturo was when one of the rafters turned up dead at sea and he had to call the relatives to notify them. His biggest happiness was when they arrived alive and he could give them a big welcome hug,” he added.
Cobo not only gave them shelter, but helped them find relatives or friends in the United States. And he recruited “godparents” if the newly arrived didn’t know anyone here.
Enrique Padron, a rafter who landed in 1994, was one of the many Cobo helped.
“The work Cobo did in coordination with Brothers to the Rescue was extraordinary. … It must be part of the history of Cuba when it is free,” Padron said in an interview with Radio Martí reporter Arianne Gonzalez.
Cobo is survived by daughters Rebeca Cobo and Elsa Degraffenreid.
A Mass in his memory will be celebrated at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West. The Brigade 2506’s flag will fly at half-staff at the group’s headquarters in Miami. His ashes will rest in the Brigade’s pantheon in the Caballero Rivero Dade South Cemetery, 14200 SW 117th Ave. in Miami.