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Cuban Refugees Face Waves, Piracy and Sharks

HAVANA -- Norma Garcia wrung her hands nervously as a Roman Catholic priest pored over his latest list of Cuban raft people rescued at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard. The priest said he regretted to inform her that her son-in-law, Alfredo Gainza Quintana, was not among the thousands of names on the list.

"It's been 15 days since he left. Shouldn't his name be there?" Garcia asked the priest.

"I'm sorry, but this is all we have of anyone who was rescued before Aug. 28. Come back tomorrow. There is still hope," the priest told her.

Left unsaid but clearly indicated from the tears in her eyes was that Garcia believed her son-in-law and the other three passengers aboard his inner-tube raft had not survived the arduous voyage that has brought some 20,000 other Cuban refugees to detention camps at the U.S. military's Guantanamo Bay Naval Station.

The odds against survival, Cuban rafters say, are extremely high. Dehydration in the hot Caribbean sun, delirium, shark-infested waters, piracy by other desperate rafters, bad weather and 5-meter waves are among the pitfalls some say they have encountered on the high seas.

Although the exact number of raft people who have perished at sea is not known, a Cuban hospital worker with access to information on bodies brought into Havana's central morgue said they have numbered in the hundreds.

The remains of rafts apparently abandoned at sea litter the shores of Havana and other nearby beaches, where currents deposit debris. Cubans say they believe the raft debris belongs to refugees who did not survive, because the U.S. Coast Guard destroys all rafts of passengers it rescues.

Despite the dangers, rafters say it is worth the risk to escape the ravages of Cuba's failing socialist economy, where government workers report monthly salaries as low as $2.

Desperate rafters -- who include doctors and engineers as well as unemployed plumbers and bricklayers -- say their objective is to set sail from northeastern Cuba in hopes of getting drawn into the westward-moving currents that form the Gulf Stream. Under optimal circumstances, the current would carry them 234 kilometers northward to the Florida Keys.

Those with well-made rafts say they plan to bypass Coast Guard ships that are waiting just beyond Cuba's 31-kilometer territorial waters and head straight for Florida.

Those who ride on inner tubes and 55-gallon oil drums say they plan to get only as far as the U.S. ships, where they hope to be rescued and interned at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba's easternmost point.

But rescue is by no means a certainty, and rumors abound of the rafters who do not make it. At Bacuranao, a beach 39 kilometers northeast of Havana, Cubans who want to flee put the finishing touches on half a dozen rafts while listening to stories of those who ventured before them.

"We got nine miles out and had to turn back," said a 25-year-old rafter who declined to give his name as he surveyed his badly listing 2.5-meter-square vessel. The raft consisted of a plywood platform mounted atop six oil drums bound together by a welded steel frame.

Two of the drums had sprung a leak during a voyage last week as the raft was pounded by waves "that went way over our heads," the rafter said. "A big wave washed over us, and we all had to hold on for our lives. Out there nobody is around to help you. You stay afloat or you die."

"It's a trade-off no matter what you do," the rafter on shore said. "If you wait too long and make too many preparations, maybe you don't go at all. If you leave by day, you fry in the sun. If you leave by night, the sharks are waiting for you."

Such, apparently, was the fate of Cesar Moreno, a resident of nearby Cojimar. "They said he went crazy at sea one night. Everyone on the raft tried to calm him down, but he jumped off to swim back to Cuba," said Sifredo Primellas, 34, who learned of the incident from other rafters who contacted Moreno's family from Guantanamo last week.

"It was night so they couldn't see anything, but they heard him being attacked by sharks. He was yelling crazy things like, 'Get away from me. Don't touch my leg.' And then there was nothing," Primellas said.

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