Escape To Honduras
Cubans and Americans Agree: Bay Islands are the Place to Be.

June 1st, 2006
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] In 2006 more Cuban ‘balseros’ landed in Honduras than in the US. A growing number of Cuban refugees make their way to Honduras. A few of them arrive in the Bay islands. Some make Bay islands their home.

At 7am on 16 January 2005, Enrique Aleman Insula and six other men left the Cuban province of Camagüey in a nineteen foot home made raft powered by a 9.5 horsepower engine. With 80 liters of water and headed for Honduras. If the seas are calm the journey takes around six days, but most of the rafts are home made and run into difficulties in rough seas, currents.

Between December and May, the 700 mile journey has become the preferred paths for Cuban ‘balseros’ trying to make their way out of their country and eventually to US. A half way stop are the Cayman Islands where the refugees are allowed to stay 72 hours, provided with food, clothing, fuel and even life vests for the rest of the journey to Honduras. If their vessel is not judged seaworthy, the refugees are returned to Cuba.
Even if the ‘balseros’ manage to outmaneuver the Cuban coast guard, they still have to avoid the US coast guard and navy. In 1995, US and Cuba signed an ‘wet-foot dry-foot’ agreement under which Cubans found at sea would be returned to Cuba, while those who reach the US would be allowed to become legal immigrants.
Honduras is one of several alternative paths for Cuban refugees trying to make their way to US. Some ‘balseros’ fight the strong currents of the Yucatan channel in an effort to reach Mexico. Others make their journey to Dominican Republic and for around $4,000 smuggle make their way across 90 miles to Mona Island, part of Puerto Rico.

According to Honduran government figures, the number of ‘balseros’ arriving on Honduras’ shores have been doubling every year since 2003. In 2003 there were 69, in 2005 259 and in 2006 there are already 500. Some ‘balseros’ wash up in Gracias a Dios, Guanaja, some on the beaches of Roatan.

After his escape from Cuba, Enrique was picked up by the US coast guard. He was exhausted, hadn’t eaten for five days and hadn’t slept for ten. Lucky for Enrique, his boat was found in international waters and the refugees were given a chance to appeal to president Maduro for the chance of landing in Honduras. Maduro granted them this right and the group arrived on Roatan where, thanks to the generosity of local population, Enrique’s six friends were able to continue their journey to Guatemala, Mexico and eventually arrived in the US. Enrique however, is left in limbo. Without any documents he hasn’t left Roatan for a year-and-a-half.
Enrique has been out of prison for nine years, his tattoos on his hands and chest are slowly fading. When he was 20, he was sentenced to two years in prison for battery. Enrique explains that because of other offences while in prison he ended up serving seven years.

Enrique, an articulate, energetic thirty-four-year-old man has been lucky. He not only survived the 11 day ordeal in stormy seas, he now has a girlfriend, a job with a construction crew and an apartment in Thicket of Coxen Hole.

v4-6-Interview-Enrique Insula

Bay Islands VOICE: Why did you decide to leave Cuba?
Enrique Aleman Insula: We left Cuba with the idea to better our lives and to help the people we left behind. I feel good here, but I want to continue with my dream of continuing [my journey] to the US.
B.I.V.: You only succeeded to leave Cuba after trying four times.
E.A.I.: First time they caught me because my motor broke down two hours into the trip. September 1, 2004. They didn’t arrest us, but they give us a fine for illegally leaving the country of 6,000 pesos ($200) and one month to pay it before it doubled. 29 of October I tried again. I was trapped by one coast guard boat, two fishing boats and another boat. They gave me additional 12,000 peso fine. Then I tried on November 6. There were some people from Havana that came to buy a boat. We salvaged a sunken boat, but the coast guard saw us and detained us. They didn’t fine me, but took away my ID card. Still with by birth certificate I could leave for the US. I moved to Manzanillo in province of Gramma east of Camagüey where we worked making the boat from aluminum tubing. We then traveled west to Camagüey to look for a reference point: lighthouse of Caveselte. From there its 240 degrees south-west for Caymans. We left on January 16, 2005.
B.I.V.: Did you encounter problems leaving the Cuban coast?
E.A.I.: There was a coast guard boat that tried to sink our boat. They tried to tell us to come on board, but I told my crew not to talk to them. “Turn back or we will make you,” they [Cuban coast guard] shouted. Then they approached us at high speed from both sides to create waves that would sink us. If we didn’t have a boat in good condition it would crash us. Then they tried tying a rope and pass it underneath our boat to flip us. We found a shallow place where their boats couldn’t follow us. This lasted from 10am to 4pm. (…) All my family are fishermen. We all come from Santa Cruz del Cur. I know how to navigate with the stars and moon and we reached a point [at 4:30am] where we could see the light [aura] of Caymans. At 6am our motor quit. We couldn’t fix it and I made a sail out of fabric. We moved slowly until 9pm when the bad weather begun. For the next six days we had a storm with waves as high as 10 meters. We spent six days without eating anything. One time a wave almost overturned us. It was slowly moving us North-East. We only wet our mouth and tongue with water. So we didn’t feel the thirst. At 2:30pm on January 26 there was a helicopter above us. At 5:00pm US coast guard [ship] came. I was the weakest because I didn’t sleep for 10 days. (…) Because we were in international waters they gave us an option of where to go. They talked to president Maduro and he accepted us to come to this island.
B.I.V.: What kind of supplies did you take with you?
E.A.I.: We started with 80 liters of water thinking we could re-supply in Cayman Islands. We had 200 liters of diesel. We tried not to take food with too much salt. Best are cookies, bread, juices, fried meat, cheese, but fundamentals are water and medicines: against pain, IV solution, [medicine] antidepressants, gravinol against seasickness. It’s important to always wear hats and long sleeve shirts.
B.I.V.: How did you build your boat?
E.A.I.: We started with 8 inch diameter [20 foot long] aluminum tubing that we cut and pounded straight. We interlocked them and insulated with tire tube. We bent it and gave it a shape of a boat. Then we stiffened it with wood and created a hole for the propeller. Four of us spent nine days working on it.
B.I.V.: Why do most Cubans leave for Honduras from Camagüey?
E.A.I.: It’s because of the lighthouse of Caveselte that serves as a reference point for Caymans. It’s a terminal Cubans use. We leave there rested and with supplies for the journey to Honduras.
B.I.V.: How careful do you have to be not to be discovered?
E.A.I.: You always have to be careful. Here they call them ‘Soplon’ in Cuba: ‘Chivato’ or informant. They sell information; tell the state security of Cuba that someone is building a boat. They burned one of the boats I built. In the area of Santa del Cruz is very difficult. It’s better to build one somewhere else and bring it in.
B.I.V.: Are there women who undertake the journey from Cuba to Honduras?
E.A.I.: I always told my friends that I wouldn’t permit to bring in women. There are women who are stronger then men. I know of a boat that came back with two out of 22 people because a fight that broke over a woman who didn’t want to let go of a baby who died. The boat sunk and only two people survived.
B.I.V.: Is it better to leave Cuban waters at night?
E.A.I.: There isn’t a good time to go. If one needs to leave they can do it any time. (…) There are all kinds of people leaving: engineers, doctors, and police. When one leaves Cuba, one leaves with two options: to reach somewhere or die. Many lose their lives, but it’s better to risk one’s life they live under the regimen of Fidel Castro.
B.I.V.: What documents do you have currently?
E.A.I.: Unfortunately all my papers got wet. (…) I don’t have anything, but everyone here knows me. I still [in the year and a half] haven’t been to La Ceiba. If I went to the coast no one would know who I am. I wish the immigration here gave me some kind of document so I could go to La Ceiba, to Tegus. I sometime want to send money to my family in Cuba, but the bank that can do it is in Tegus. (…) I am waiting for a copy of my birth certificate to be sent from Cuba but the more important document I need is my certificate of master builder.
B.I.V.: Your six friends had ID cards?
E.A.I.: Yes, they carried they ID card. The way I understand it, once a Cuban reaches Mexico, he has an advantage of reaching US. A Cuban doesn’t need smugglers. We only need to go to the Mexican authorities. One needs to take a lawyer, paid by one’s family in the US, to do paperwork allowing the crossing of the US border.
B.I.V.: Did the people on Roatan help you?
E.A.I.: Don Marco Galindo gave us $1,500 so they could continue their journey. The French Harbour and Coxen Hole churches raised additional money and this allowed them to reach Guatemala. In Guatemala they spent seven days and 27 days in Mexico. On the way they were assaulted and completely robbed. Now they are in US, except for Irain, who is back in Cuba. [/private]

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