MIAMI (AP) — It was hot and dark and mosquitoes bit at his skin as 23-year-old Jose Fuente Lastre boarded a raft with eight other men, intent on fleeing Cuba.
Their flimsy vessel built secretly with scraps of metal, wood and inner tubes had failed repeatedly. Oil leaked. The propeller sputtered. They got lost trying to navigate even before they reached the ocean.
"I'm not going," Lastre had announced. "It seems we weren't meant to leave."
"Don't be a fool," shot back his stepfather, Antonio Cardenas. "After trying this hard you have to try again."
Four of their companions decided it was too risky, bailing into the dark water and wading to shore.
Lastre looked at his stepfather's wrinkled hands and face. They had invested nearly everything they owned — most of Cardenas' farm animals and all of Lastre's $566 in life savings — to build the raft. Lastre had received his mother's blessing, and his girlfriend's reluctant goodbye.
They switched on the motor they had taken from a Russian tractor-trailer, and consulted a compass torn from an old boat.
It was at least 110 miles through hurricane and shark-prone waters to Florida. If the raft held together and no storms appeared, they would suffer unrelenting Caribbean sun for a few days. But if they aimed too far west, they'd be stranded in the vast Gulf of Mexico. Too far east, and the Gulf Stream would sweep them deep into the Atlantic, a tiny brown speck in a great blue sea.
They moved like a slow train through the water, a plume of diesel exhaust trailing behind them.
Tens of thousands of Cubans have made the harrowing journey on homemade rafts across the Florida Straits, preferring to risk their lives than remain in Cuba.
President Barack Obama's promise to reverse 53 years of hostility has raised hopes that with normalized relations, Cubans will stop taking these risks. But Obama's deal with President Raul Castro isn't expected to stop the tide anytime soon. Obama lacks the votes in Congress to abandon the embargo and the provision allowing almost all Cubans who reach the U.S. to stay is law. This last year, the number of Cubans picked up at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard or making it to U.S. shores rose nearly 75 percent, from 2,129 to 3,722.
Lastre didn't grow up with dreams of leaving Cuba. In fact, he was happy there.
He lived with his girlfriend, Yainis, in a small house his grandmother had left behind, and resold bread the black market, making 3,000 pesos a month, about $115. That's far more than the average Cuban salary of $20, but it only covered food and an occasional new pair of shoes.
Lastre had always worked. As a boy, he drove a small goat cart, charging other kids a peso a ride. Tourists thought it was cute and took his picture. By age 9, he would wake at 4 a.m. and walk the dark streets to get bread rolls. He'd buy them for two pesos and sell them for three. Neighbors in Camaguey, a central Cuban town of 321,000, would wait for the headstrong boy with dirty-blonde hair to pass by on his bike.
"El pan!" he'd shout. "The bread!"
His dream was to save enough money working in Cuba to build a house like his stepfather's one day.
Then he saw his neighbor Omarito disappear on a raft, and come back a few years later with enough money to build a house AND a business.
Later, watching American movies with Yainis, he couldn't help but notice that even teenagers in the U.S. had cars. He'd probably never own one.
"If only we could go there," Yainis would sigh.
Lastre and Yainis had grown up under the revolution, never knowing life without Fidel Castro or the embargo, but far more exposed to outside influences than previous generations.
In 2009, Obama loosened money and travel limits. About 500,000 U.S. visitors now visit the island each year, most of them Cuban Americans, according to the Cuban government. That's 13 times more than the 37,000 Cubans who came back as tourists in 1994, when Lastre was a toddler.
The returnees bring stories of life in the U.S., cellphones and laptops.
With no close family in the U.S., Lastre felt he could never afford these things. It wasn't that he wanted to be rich — "I just want to feel normal," he said.
As for Cardenas, he was 50, not the age when men think of throwing themselves in the ocean.
He had built a life with Lastre's mother, Olea. Her name was tattooed in cursive across his right triceps. He kept a small farm of horses, pigs and goats, and sold bread, beans and produce illegally, risking hefty fines but avoiding taxes and fees. In a good month, he could earn $120. Long days outdoors made him seem much older, with gray hair and lines across his forehead and neck.
The thought of Lastre on a raft at sea made him and Olea nervous. But if his stepson was going to try it, he wanted to protect him.
"Go and look at the raft," Olea said. "If it looks strong, go with him."
The raft did seem solid: Lastre had welded sheet metal to form the sides and bottom and a crude bow, with inner tubes attached to the sides. The propeller beat steadily in the water.
Yennier Martinez Diaz, 32, watched from shore. An agricultural worker who lived near the remote launching spot, he had helped the men carry their supplies and asked to join them. Maybe in the United States he could find work and do more to help a brother with cancer. But there was no room — until the others jumped out.
"Do you want to come?" Cardenas asked.
"Yes!" Diaz said, jumping in with nothing other than his navy blue shorts.
"Adios!" a fisherman yelled as their raft pushed into the Atlantic.
At first the skies were blue, the water calm. They drank water — there were six and a half gallons for each person — ate crackers and started making plans.
"The first thing I'm going to do is get a job," Cardenas declared.
And if they got caught and returned to Cuba? Immediately make another raft and try again.
On the second day, Cardenas accidentally brushed his calf against the motor, burning his skin. A patch the size of an orange peeled off, and the salt water stung with each strong wave.
By the sixth day, they were nearly out of gas, and with no sign of land.
"We should use what we have left for when we're close to shore," suggested Cardenas, the oldest on board.
They would need to move quickly then — If the U.S. Coast Guard reached them in the water, they'd be sent back to Cuba under the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy.
They turned off the motor off, thinking they'd drift close enough overnight to see land. They decided to lighten their load, tossing food and water overboard.
But when they woke the next day, all they saw was blue sea.
"Pa' Cuba!" one of the men began yelling, desperate to turn back.
They'd gone seven days without seeing land. A few others agreed.
"To Cuba no," Cardenas insisted, his face tired and covered in stubble. "We are going to make it."
Others wanted to put the rest of the gas to use. Cardenas was outnumbered. Desperate, he took out a sledgehammer and threatened to destroy the motor if anyone touched it.
An eighth night passed with no sign of land. Cardenas kept his doubts to himself.
"When you look and see water all around," Cardenas said. "You say, "What am I doing here?'"
A flicker of light tracked across the sky, then another. Planes. They began rowing the boat in the same direction, noticing that the sky ahead had fewer stars. A city?
Rowing through the ninth day and night, they finally saw the distant flash of lights and buildings. Finally, the next morning, they kicked on the motor and sprinted toward shore, hitting sand near a condominium called "Mar Azul" — Blue Sea — on Miami's Key Biscayne. They jumped out and ran barefoot, until they reached a metal gate.
A guard looked them over and took out his keys.
"Welcome to the land of liberty!" he said.
After 10 days at sea, they were treated like celebrities in Florida. Journalists sought them for interviews. TV shows put them before live studio audiences. One producer bought them all cellphones. At restaurants, they were treated to free beer and desserts. Social workers dropped off boxes of clothing.
Soon, though, their days looked like this: Long hours in a small hotel room, awaiting resettlement. They got Cuban food delivered, played dominoes and watched TV. Diaz stayed with Cardenas, who tended to his burn as Lastre threw punches in the air, staring intently at himself in a small mirror. The rest all joined relatives.
Every few days, they made costly calls with bad connections to family in Camaguey.
Cardenas told his wife he'll send money as soon as he starts working. Lastre told his girlfriend to be strong, and asked his mother to sell his bicycle.
"Mom," he asks. "What about my dog? Does she miss me?"
One month and three days later, the men woke before dawn and gathered five big duffel bags and four smaller ones, filled with donated clothes. They left for Portland, Oregon, where Church World Service had arranged housing, English classes, and jobs.
Cardenas proudly took photos on his cellphone: Lastre holding up his airplane ticket; Diaz pushing a cart of luggage.
Diaz and Lastre had never been on a plane before. None spoke English. But they had survived much worse.
"The biggest scare is over," Cardenas said.
Three months after the men's arrival, Obama surprisingly announced efforts to restore ties and make it easier to travel back and forth from the island they fled.
"Did you hear the news?" a relative from Tampa, Florida called excitedly. "Maybe you won't have to wait so long to see your family."
Had they known relations between the U.S. and Cuba were about to improve, Cardenas said he would have risked the journey anyway, because change comes slowly, and Cuba won't likely equal the United States in opportunity anytime soon.
"I'm not looking back," Cardenas said.
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