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For Some Cubans, Rafts Turn Into Deathtraps

August 25, 1994|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — The Havana man and his brother had been drifting on a raft in the Florida Straits for nine days under the scorching sun. They were dehydrated, suffering from exposure, delirious.

As two other refugees watched in horror from a nearby vessel crafted of Styrofoam, the man announced to his brother: "I've got to go now. Mom is making breakfast." With that, he stepped off the raft and disappeared into the rolling sea.

The brother, weak and left "without will" from dehydration and hunger, made no attempt to save him, according to Orlando Abelindo, 44, who said he witnessed the tragic scene from the Styrofoam raft.

Not long after the man, believed to be in his early 30s, stepped off the raft to his death, Abelindo said he saw a severed leg float past his own craft.

Although thousands of people who fled Cuba in jerry-built rafts during the last 10 days have been rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard, passing cruise ships and cargo boats, an unknown number of others have died--some from exposure or dehydration, others because their unseaworthy rafts sank and still others because they suffered from the kind of hallucination that afflicted the man who went to his death as his brother and Abelindo watched. Thinking they saw land just ahead, they have jumped into the high seas, where they drowned or were attacked by sharks.

"When you're floating in the sea, it is such a vast area that it's like being in the desert. You start to hallucinate. You think you see horses or you think you see land," said Abelindo, who recalled that at one point, he also imagined seeing land after floating for nine hours.

Coast Guard officials said they believe that most rafters who reach international waters 12 miles from Cuba are rescued. In the last few days, only a few people have been found dead on rafts, said Lt. Cmdr. Jim Howe, a Coast Guard spokesman in Key West, Fla.

"But we just don't know how many people leave Cuba and don't make it outside Cuban waters where the Coast Guard is not able to patrol," Howe said.

While many rafters are able to reach the 12-mile mark in a day or less by rowing or using sail or motor power, others can languish in the zone just off Cuban shores for days, stalled by the whims of tides, winds and currents.

Howe recalled rescuing nine people last summer aboard two rafts that were drifting at the 12 1/2-mile mark. The refugees had already been at sea for five days.

Private pilots who fly above the Straits have reported seeing dozens of empty boats, signifying to them that the passengers had died. Generally, the Coast Guard sinks rafts after rescuing the refugees, although Howe said the high number of rescues in recent days has made that task impossible in some cases.

Bruce Rosendahl, dean of the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, said the current in the Florida Straits is so powerful and the job of detecting the small rafts in the vast 90-mile stretch of choppy sea so difficult that the Coast Guard cannot possibly intercept all of them.

"Certainly some slip through," Rosendahl said. "We have no idea what those numbers are. Nobody does."

The missing variable, he said, is that no one knows how many people are attempting the journey.

That so many would set out on crudely made vessels to travel the 90 miles to the United States is stunning to those who best understand the rigors of such a journey.

"I don't think any of us scientists would contemplate that voyage in the kind of craft we have seen on television--no matter how bad it is in Cuba," Rosendahl said.

A wall in the Transit Center for Cuban Refugees, a way station on Stock Island near Key West, speaks powerfully about the risks the voyagers face. It is covered with hundreds of slips of paper bearing the names of Cubans who set out for the United States during the last two years but never reached their destination.

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