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Bird’s-Eye View of Voyages of Desperation : Flight: Cuban American pilots watch the Coast Guard chase rickety craft on the sea. Risking their lives for hope, refugees signal for rescue.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the faint outline of Cuba on the horizon, a U.S. Coast Guard lifeboat carrying eight refugees from the island pulled away from a tiny, scarcely seaworthy raft.

Waiting not 100 yards away was a Coast Guard patrol boat already teeming with dozens of refugees plucked from the Florida Straits earlier in the day.

Off to the west, in two more rafts--a bright yellow one pulling a sail board and a jury-rigged craft of inner tubes and plywood--more refugees waved their arms, hoping their rescue also was soon at hand.

Back in the direction of Cuba, a mirror flashed in the sun, glinting from the white-capped waves and signaling where yet another group of refugees was eagerly awaiting what they believed would be passage to America.

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This was the scene 20 miles from Cuba, viewed from a four-person Piper Arrow plane during a three-minute period Saturday afternoon.

The pilot of the plane, himself a Cuban American who had immigrated 15 years earlier, wondered aloud how the people on the lifeboat would feel when they learned that what they thought would be a boat offering them a safe voyage to the United States turned out to be a vessel headed for Guantanamo, Cuba.

“They’re going to feel really upset,” said Juan Salas, 27, a weekend pilot who has helped Cuban Americans search for their relatives escaping from the island on similar craft in the past. “They will have no life there. They will feel they have gone from one jail to another.”

A day after President Clinton announced that the refugees casting their boats and rafts into the treacherous seas off Cuba would no longer be accepted with open arms, 861 Cubans were rescued by the Coast Guard--the highest daily number since the 1980 Mariel boat lift.

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And it was obvious from the air that many more were still floating in the choppy seas, far out of sight of any Coast Guard vessel.

During an hourlong survey of a narrow stretch of water from 15 miles off Cuba back toward Florida, Salas and his passengers caught sight of 18 rafts and small boats with at least 100 refugees on board.

Some of the craft had large, triangular pieces of cloth attached haphazardly to form awkward sails. In others, the passengers seemed to be rowing frantically, trying to speed their passage. In one metal rowboat, a dozen people were crammed together. Another was so small that the three men on board--two seated and one standing--appeared to cover the whole surface area of the craft.

Many of the refugees flashed mirrors or reflective cloth when they spotted the small aircraft above. Others waved pieces of red cloth.

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In the water near one of the rafts, a red flare burned, apparently an attempt to attract a Coast Guard cutter visible on the horizon. That cutter was busy pulling refugees from a flotilla of three rafts.

“That flare means that the Brothers to the Rescue were here and dropped a flare to help guide the Coast Guard,” said Salas, referring to a group of private pilots who regularly fly the Florida Straits searching for refugees.

All of this activity took place in a small portion of the 90 miles of shark-infested sea between Cuba and the United States. Flights lower than 5,000 feet had been banned over most of the area from Key West to Cuba in an effort to ensure the safety of Coast Guard personnel involved in search-and-rescue missions.

The restrictions angered the Cuban American pilots who patrol those waters, looking for their countrymen trying to escape Fidel Castro’s regime.

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“It’s so unfair,” said Angel Alfonso, a pilot who flies regularly over the Florida Straits looking for refugees. “They’re making it hard for us to do what we need to do--to go and help our brothers.”

Other Cuban Americans said they worried that some refugees would perish because of the flight ban.

“We are deeply concerned for the thousands of Cubans who are now in the Florida Straits, as the ability of private pilots to locate the rafters at sea has been limited,” said Tom Willie, director of World Relief for South Florida and a board member of the Transit Center, a way station for Cuban refugees on Stock Island, just off Key West.


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