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Escape Is an Obsession for Cubans

Such single-mindedness among some people can cause a withdrawal from daily life. One man has tried and failed 18 times to flee the island.

April 09, 2006|Gary Marx | Chicago Tribune

MATANZAS, Cuba — Emiliano Batista has spent more than a decade planning, scheming and risking his life in 18 failed attempts to reach Florida by raft.

Over the years, the 31-year-old laborer sold his television, refrigerator and, in the end, all his worldly possessions for materials to build a boat. When that wasn't enough, he dismantled his home. Even the light fixtures and sink were sold.

"It's been a nightmare not reaching my objective," said Batista, a resident of this port city 60 miles east of Havana. "All I've thought about is leaving."

The drama of Cuban rafters is well-known in the United States, and it is expected to be repeated often in the coming months as the winter seas calm and an increasing number of Cubans launch their rickety boats from the island's rugged coastline.

But hidden from view is a psychological phenomenon -- a state of obsession -- that can overwhelm people's lives here regardless of whether they ever reach foreign shores.

"When people say, 'That guy, all he has in his head is leaving,' you know that means the person is lost," said a 27-year-old Havana resident, referring to the psychological state that can lead to sadness, desperation, anxiety and depression.

Angered by her husband's obsession and fearful he would die at sea, Batista's wife left him.

"He didn't think about me, my child or anything," said Rasselin Casanova, 27. "He thought only about the boats."

The couple later reconciled and Batista fought off the urge to try again for a year. "But my obsession returned," he said.

The obsession is fed by several distinctive features of this country, the first being that Cuba is an island. Travel out of the country requires money for airfare, costly visas and the government's permission, which is hard to come by.

The average Cuban salary is about $15 a month, making a trip something that most people can only dream about.

Yet the constant stream of Cuban emigres visiting their homeland with tales of life in the outside world creates a yearning for something other than Cuba's tightly controlled socialist system. The fact that Cuba is so tantalizingly close to the United States -- 90 miles across the Florida Straits -- doesn't help either.

The number of Cuban migrants intercepted at sea nearly doubled from 1,499 in 2004 to 2,952 last year, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Authorities say about the same number of migrants avoided detection and reached U.S. shores.

And although the Cuban government generally does not punish those who are sent back, police are always on the lookout for signs of surreptitious boat building. If a boat is discovered, it is confiscated and the builders lose everything, including the money they saved to build the boat. Eleven of Batista's attempts were thwarted before he even put his craft into the water, he said.

Many Cubans toy with the idea of leaving the island even as they go about the daily grind. But those who become obsessed have crossed an invisible psychological line, in a transformation they say is usually triggered by a pivotal experience.

"When you get to the point when you want to leave, nothing else matters," said the 27-year-old Havana resident, who asked that she not to be identified.

The woman said she became obsessed with the idea of emigrating after realizing that fidelity to the government rather than excellence was the key to advancement at work in Cuba.

She lost interest in her graduate studies, stopped dating and alienated her friends by talking incessantly about moving abroad.

"My friends didn't want to be near me," the woman said. "Their lives continued but mine stopped. I was stuck in this one idea. Everything was negative. Nothing had meaning."

After realizing she had no way to leave Cuba, the woman had to struggle to rekindle her friendships and finish school. But she has not given up the dream of leaving.

"The idea hasn't gone away, but this has helped me breathe until the opportunity comes," she said.

Most potential emigrants spend years trying to find a way off the island. For those Cubans, the pressure builds and the obsession grows.

"It's like living with a roof pressing down on you," said a 25-year-old psychologist, who says she hit the tipping point when, after two years at an $18-a-month job, she realized she had no prospects in Cuba's tightly controlled economy.

The psychologist chose a common strategy and set her mind to finding a foreign boyfriend. She spent two hours a day on Internet chat rooms, where she recently struck up a relationship with a 33-year-old German bachelor.

He has visited her in Cuba, and she hopes to soon join him overseas.

Lazaro Jesus Martinez, a 31-year-old Matanzas resident, said he had been gripped by the desire to leave Cuba since he was an impoverished teenager. He's tried four times to reach South Florida in a raft.

Martinez compared his obsession to a hammer pounding inside his skull.

"It's torture," he said. "The thought is with me all the time. I open my eyes in the morning and it's there."

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