Cubans risking lives for the ‘American Dream’

Abel Mesa, 22, is just one of thousands of Cubans making dangerous journeys on makeshift rafts in search of a new life.

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Abel Mesa, 22, has risking his life trying to reach the US from Cuba [Gabriel Elizondo/Al Jazeera]

It was 3:00am, dark outside, and nobody on the streets.

And it was the perfect moment for Abel Mesa, 22, to risk his young life to try to reach the United States.

He had been preparing for this day.

When he wasn’t working as a waiter, he spent much of his free time in a garage near his house secretly building a makeshift raft out of rubber tubes that line the inside of tractor tires.

He has been discussing this day with his girlfriend, who said she’d go with him. They planned to make it to the US, find work, settle down, and make a better life for themselves.

“Life is tough in Cuba,” he said. “We work a lot but make little money.”

New life

Mesa stepped out of his bedroom quietly so as to not wake anybody in his house which he shared with his parents.

His mum knew he was building a raft, but he didn’t give her any advance warning as to when he was going for fear she would be so scared it could affect her health.

“At that moment I felt a little sadness because I was leaving my family in Cuba,” he said. “But I wanted a new life, to get [to the US] and help my family that is behind in Cuba.”


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That morning he met up with his girlfriend and four other members of her family.

Not wanting to be spotted by police, they carried the raft as fast as they could until they reached the beach.

“We arrived at the beach, took off our shoes and changed clothes, pushed the raft into the water, got on top, and then started to row,” he said.

In Cuba it is illegal for private citizens to own outboard boat motors without authorisation precisely to try to limit the number of people who make the short, but dangerous,144km journey to Florida.

They each had a backpack with snacks and a change of clothes stuffed inside. Abel also had a hand held compass. The plan: Keep rowing, follow the compass, in two days and two nights spot Florida, and make a final mad dash to land.

Once Cubans step foot on US soil they are not deported, and can apply for residency after 12 months, under a special policy the US only grants to Cubans. But if they are intercepted before they make landfall, they are usually deported.

Last year alone, the US coastguard intercepted more than 5,000 Cubans trying to reach the US by raft. Thousands more avoid detection and make it to the US each year.


Viewfinder: The changes coming to Cuba are taking many forms.

Doomed trip

The Cuban government has long said the US policy only encourages Cubans to make the dangerous journey, putting lives at risk.

Havana is pressing the US to drop the policy as part of ongoing talks to re-start diplomatic relations, however so far the US has refused.

As for Abel, he thought he had prepared for everything for the journey, but was doomed by something out of his control: the weather.

“For two days we were rowing, but it rained and there was thunder,” he said. “There were a lot of dangers to pass to reach our destination.”

Unexpected ocean currents pushed his raft back to Cuba before he could make it to the US. As he drifted back to his homeland, he was picked up by the Cuban coastguard, forced to pay a fine, and released.

It is only after three unsuccessful attempts to make the water journey to Florida that Cubans are put in jail.

Now back in Cuba, when asked about the new diplomatic talks between his country and the US, Abel shrugged his shoulders. He’s impatient for change.

“These relations are between [governments],” he said. “I want to go, I don’t want to wait. I think some things will be better, some not, who knows?”

Finally he was asked if he planned to try the risky journey again.

“If I find another raft that is in good enough condition and I think I can make it, I’ll try again,” he said, with little hesitation.

“I could lose my life doing it,” he said. “But I could also make it.”

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Source: Al Jazeera