They're Coming to America!--on Inner Tubes : A Neon Land Beckons Cubans Across Sea

Times Staff Writer

The four Cubans battled an afternoon sun that glittered off the sea. They were floating on two inner tubes lashed together with rope. They were floating to America.

In the first hours, the choppy water washed away half their canned meat and juice. Then the morning brought that sun, and the naked heat brought on the thirst. Their Russian compass stuck and never budged again.

On the second day, a tiger shark swam beneath them. The men jerked their blistered legs from the water. Jesus Ruiz swatted at it with an oar. Then more sharks came, and after that the circling of fins never stopped.

By the fourth day, the water jugs were empty and the hallucinating began. Pablo Betancourt thought his mother sat beside him. He asked her to pour him some milk. Then the delirium went away. We're going to die, Pablo mumbled.

But during the night, they glimpsed a fishing boat. Hello, they shouted toward a faint yellow light. They paddled furiously. Finally, a voice drifted to them on the wind. Hello, someone was answering.

Their rescue last Saturday brought to 24 the number of freedom floaters who have reached America in the past three months. Barely a week goes by without another weary, sun-parched man bobbing his way toward stunned fishermen.

For 27 years, Cubans have fled Fidel Castro and communism, some by boat, some by plane. This spring, that exodus has discovered the inner tube.

There are few more perilous ways to cross the Florida Straits, but each passage has only encouraged others to try.

The Cubans say they learn of the successes from Radio Marti, the year-old broadcast service beamed to Cuba by the U.S. government.

"If those others could make it, I thought I'm strong enough to make it," said Betancourt, typical of those who have cast their fate to the Gulf Stream.

However heroic the efforts, there is a troubling fear. Many are undoubtedly being beckoned to their death.

Coast Guard and immigration officials say the 90 miles between Cuba and Key West is no place for tubing. The sea is unpredictable, the storms fierce, the sun a demon's eye.

"Anyone in an inner tube is at the mercy of the wind and current," said Lt. Cmdr. Jim Simpson of the Coast Guard. "Many times, it's two steps forward and one step back--one day drifting toward Miami, the next day drifting back toward Cuba."

Dwayne Peterson, of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Miami, said: "Two who made it told us they started with three. One just floated away from them, gone forever. Who knows how many are dying at sea?"

On Wednesday, Ernesto Betancourt, the director of Radio Marti in Washington--and no relation to Pablo--said future reports of the crossings will be paired with a warning.

Warning of Danger

"We will tell them there is great danger to their lives if they try to do this," he said. "And we will tell them that the United States will not legally accept them."

Legally, no.

Yet those who have survived the trip have in fact been rewarded with a new life. They may be illegal aliens, but the United States has no active immigration treaty with Cuba. They cannot be sent home, Peterson said.

So far, the floaters have been released to families or friends here in Miami. This is in contrast to the many Haitian boat people picked up at sea. Most often, the Haitians are returned.

Jesus Ruiz, 31 and a carpenter, is jubilant to know he can stay.

"I have grandparents and aunts and two cousins in Miami," he said. "I'll do OK here."

Convinced Boyhood Friends

It was the short and gabby Ruiz who convinced his boyhood friends that they could sneak past the border patrols and drift away in an amiable current.

All four were single men living in crowded Havana apartments with their families. They were unhappy about bad prospects and low pay.

Yet more than anything, they were simply lured to the hovering neon that is America. It seemed so close, and it seemed to call.

When the weather was kind, their TVs picked up Johnny Carson and major league baseball. Their radios played songs by Stevie Wonder and Tina Turner and Kool and The Gang.

When they heard the news that men were actually floating to Florida in inner tubes, it sounded like a grand adventure.

Ruiz convinced Raul Betancourt, 29, an unemployed laborer. Raul convinced his brother Pablo, 28, a strapping university student who speaks good English. Pablo convinced Luis Terry, a 25-year-old student and wrestler.

Beginning of Journey

In the darkness before dawn on Tuesday, June the 10th, they set out from the rocky coast near some petroleum fields east of Havana.

Their odyssey would last 100 hours, and they would give this account:

The shoreline was watched by men with dogs. But the four had decided this perch was their best chance. Floaters who left from less remote beaches were quickly picked up by patrol boats.

They had planned carefully. They had bought a compass. They had told virtually no one.

Their two inner tubes were deep and wide and sturdy, the kind made for tractors. They inflated them with foot pedals under the cover of sea grape trees 50 yards from the water.

"But it didn't go the way we expected," Ruiz said.

The tubes and supplies proved a burden to carry. They struggled with them as they entered the sea. Then the waves swamped some of the food. It was gone.

Remaining Food

They were left with only 10 liters of water, three cans of condensed milk, two cans of meat and chopped fish, two cans of grapefruit juice.

Worse yet, three of them foolishly stripped down to their underwear. They did not want to swim in their heavy, wet clothes.

They left their shirts and pants to disappear into the dark sea. In the days to come, the sun would blacken their exposed skin. Burns would open into sores.

At the start, they waded their way into the depths. Then they tied the inner tubes together. They strung canvas underneath and hung from the sides of what had become almost a makeshift raft.

Searchlights sometimes lit the water. They submerged the tires as deep as possible.

Patrol Boat Nearby

The caution was wise. Just after sunrise, a patrol boat passed, maybe 100 meters away, maybe even closer. Ruiz tossed away his identification papers.

"If they picked us up, I was going to say I wasn't Cuban," he said.

But the patrol missed them. They climbed on top of the tubes, straddling them like a horse. They paddled with scrap wood.

Progress was painful. Their backs ached. Their arms tired from holding tight.

They had wrapped the tubes with burlap so the rubber would not roast in the heat. As they rocked in the water, the harsh fabric rubbed away their flesh.

By the second night, they were exhausted. They slept fitfully, curled on top of the tubes.

Hard Rain Fell

Then the waves picked up and a chill set in. A hard rain fell. The winds nudged them steadily, but they had lost sense of direction.

By morning, they saw land. Matanzas, they guessed. They had been pushed back toward Cuba. They could see the bright lights from a search tower.

"We thought we were trapped so we started to paddle like crazy," Pablo said. "Everybody but Raul. He was too sick, throwing up and moaning."

They made it back out to sea. Soon, a brutal sun gobbled away the clouds. Later, in the glow of that afternoon, they saw the first shark.

" 'Lift your legs,' that's what I shouted," Ruiz remembered. "I saw it go right under us."

The shark disappeared. But then there were more.

Counted Four Sharks

"We counted four," Pablo recalled. "I said, 'oh God, maybe the first shark told the others there were four of us.' "

They tried to keep their legs inside the tubes, down against the canvas. The sharks never attacked. But they never went away. They could always see fins slicing through the surface.

After that, no one slept, though the fatigue was awful. And no one talked much. When they did, they argued.

Ships sometimes appeared in the great distance. Ruiz said he wanted to be picked up--by Cubans, by Russians, by anyone. He just wanted his life.

Pablo and Luis said no.

"Miami, that was the only place I wanted," Pablo said.

But by the fourth day everyone was discouraged. The drinking water was gone. Raul took the final sip. Then he spit it right up.

Began Hallucinating

Pablo, who had seemed the strongest, began talking nonsense. He thought he was at the neighbor's, reaching for the refrigerator door.

"I think I was maybe deep in trouble," he recalled.

That night was their fifth at sea. They floated on.

In the pitch, not far from Molasses Reef and 30 miles from land, sat the fishing boat Triple Pain. Its anchor was set, and its light was yellow.

Jesus Ruiz was the first to see the glimmer, and it made him want to lunge into the water. No, the others warned: the sharks.

So they paddled toward the yellow light, staring as it got brighter.

Hours later, they finally picked the boat's shape out of the darkness. Then they heard voices.

Bathed in Light

A floodlight came on. They were bathed in light--four men clinging to rubber. Pablo spoke up.

"They thought I was Jamaican, my English was that good," he recalled.

The fishermen lifted them aboard. They heated up some vegetable soup. In a few hours, the Coast Guard arrived. The Cubans were sped to a hospital.

"They thought we were brave, something like heroes," Pablo said.

That is true, said Petty Officer John Fowler.

In fact, the crew towed in the burlap-covered tires. They thought they ought to be saved. It seemed only right.

But then they looked them over and changed their minds.

"We realized," Fowler said, "hey, these are just two inner tubes."

Researcher Lorna Nones assisted with the reporting of this story.

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