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

June 19, 1986|BARRY BEARAK | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — 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.

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