Going for broke in quest for freedom
Emiliano Batista lost his wife, his house and all his worldly
possessions in 18 failed attempts to flee Cuba. He is one of thousands
of Cubans obsessed with trying to reach the United States.
By Gary Marx
Tribune foreign correspondent
April 2, 2006
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 boats. 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 that 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 Straits of Florida–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 while 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.
Crossing line into obsession
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
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
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 that 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.
The pressure builds
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,” explained 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.
“I look at my mother, who is 53 years old, and I don’t want to end up
like her,” she explained. “I began to understand my future is not what I
thought it would be. What I have now is what I’m going to have my whole
life–the salary, the job, living with my parents and nothing more.”
The psychologist chose a common strategy and set her mind to finding a
foreign boyfriend. She spent two hours a day in Internet chat rooms,
where she recently struck up a relationship with a 33-year-old German
He has visited her in Cuba, and she hopes to join him soon overseas.
“It’s a way for me to learn about other places,” she said. “This will be
the first time I’ve left the country.”
Lazaro Jesus Martinez, a 31-year-old Matanzas resident, said he has been
gripped by the desire to leave Cuba since he was an impoverished
teenager. He has tried four times to reach South Florida on 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.”
`Wet foot, dry foot’
In January, Martinez was part of a group of 15–including Batista, the
rafter who has failed 18 times–that made it across the Straits of
Florida, landing on an abandoned bridge they believed was U.S. soil.
Martinez said that as he stood on the bridge and waved joyously at
passing truckers, it was the first time in years that the hammer stopped
pounding in his head.
But much to the horror of Martinez and his companions on the 21-foot
boat, U.S. authorities repatriated them to Cuba after determining that
parts of the old bridge were missing and it no longer was connected to
Immigration officials said the migrants did not qualify to remain in the
U.S. under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allows Cubans who reach
U.S. soil to stay, while those intercepted at sea generally are returned
Then, in a remarkable twist, a federal judge ruled in February
rafters were removed illegally, and U.S. officials have cleared the way
for all the migrants to return except Martinez, who may be ineligible
because of questions about a possible criminal record.
The rafters’ last hurdle is getting their government’s approval to
leave. Cuban officials have made no comment on the case, and diplomats
and experts are divided on whether officials will grant the rafters’ wishes.
Batista remains optimistic.
“I don’t see any reason why it won’t happen,” he said. “I never doubted
that it would work out.”