Florida mayor intent on traveling from Cuba on a makeshift raft

DeBary Mayor Clint Johnson aboard a makeshift raft to take from Cuba back to Florida. The U.S. Coast Guard has urged him not to attempt the trip.
DeBary Mayor Clint Johnson aboard a makeshift raft to take from Cuba back to Florida. The U.S. Coast Guard has urged him not to attempt the trip. News-Journal/Austin Fuller

Since last month, central Florida Mayor Clint Johnson has been working on a makeshift raft and publicizing his intent to cross the Florida Straits on the vessel so he can know what it feels like for Cubans who make the dangerous voyage.

Seems like it would be a lot easier to simply ask one of the 112 Cuban migrants who traveled across the Florida Straits in precarious crafts just in the first four days of this month. Or the 379 who made the journey during the month of April last year. Or one of the 2,902 balseros (rafters) who put their lives at risk since Oct. 1, including the recent seven who apparently shot themselves to guarantee a medical transport to U.S. shores and therefore secure the ability to stay as per U.S. policy.

Instead, the mayor of DeBary, a small city in Volusia County, is busy testing out the raft’s floating capabilities and keeping his social media friends and followers abreast of his progress.

“Ocean test run complete! … (hash)Cuba next!,” Johnson tweeted over the weekend. “Educational, enlightening, and an awesome experience. (hash)Cuba next!,” stated another tweet.

He also posted updates on Facebook:

"Heading out of Ponce Inlet at start of overnight ocean raft test."

According to a GPS tracking website also posted on Johnson’s Facebook page, his practice run started at a Ponce Inlet ramp, went around the jetty and about 12 miles north to Daytona Beach Shores, the Associated Press reported.

"Raft is loaded up and coast bound for a night under the ocean stars! You can live track & even text me tonight via GPS at this link:"

Johnson, whose three-year term expires in 2018, has said he plans to cross the Florida Straits later this month without a motor because he wants to understand what Cuban migrants experience.

The U.S. Coast Guard, meanwhile, has issued a statement urging the mayor not to do it.

"As the primary U.S. maritime law enforcement agency, the Coast Guard is responsible for enforcing immigration laws of the United States, promoting safe, legal, and orderly migration, and preventing the loss of life at sea. Maritime migration is both dangerous, and often a deadly endeavor,” the statement says. “As a humanitarian service, the Coast Guard has encountered numerous migrants who have taken to sea in hand-made vessels that are unsafe, unseaworthy, with no communication, navigation or life saving equipment on board. There have been an undetermined number of Cuban and Haitian migrants who have lost their lives at sea attempting to reach the United States U.S. illegally onboard these hand-made vessels.

“Not only are the consequences of a voyage on hand-made vessels potentially deadly, but they also put unnecessary risk on the lives of our Coast Guard men and women who respond to enforce U.S. law and keep those at sea safe,” the statement says. “By definition, reports of handmade conveyances transporting migrants trigger a Coast Guard search and rescue case. Mayor Johnson's trip will immediately trigger a Coast Guard search and rescue response, to most likely include the launch of fixed wing search aircraft, helicopters, and ships. We respectfully urge the Mayor to reconsider his trip, which will best case result in a search for him. Worst case, his trip may result in grave consequences."

For some insight on just how dangerous the journey can be, perhaps Johnson can speak with one of the 35,000 Cubans who arrived aboard flimsy vessels during the 1994 balsero exodus. Or with relatives of the estimated thousands who never made it.