The Refugee Boat


Over the Thanksgiving holidays, we drove north to Jupiter, where there’s a dog beach – and that means NO LEASHES, RUN FREE, DIVE INTO THE SURF.

As we approached a vacant spot on the beach, we all noticed a strange blue structure about thirty feet away.

“What’s that?” Megan asked.

“It looks like a boat,” Rob said.

It looked, I thought, like a disaster. Beach patrol emplyees were clustered around it and the curious, like us, were moving in closer, snapping photos of it. This boat, which felt like it was made of foam, Rob said, had probably dared the rough seas between Cuba and the U.S. with thirty plus people on board.

“What kind of foam?” I asked. “Styrofoam?”

“Not styrofoam. More like foam you might find in a mattress,” Rob said.

I could see this, desperate refugees slicing open their mattresses to extract the stuff inside so that the boat could be created. For years, any fleeing Cuban who reaches the shores of the U.S. has been allowed to stay. Now that quasi-diplomatic ties are being restored, this automatic refugee carte blanche might be rescinded and Cubans are arriving in Florida in droves.

From a January 2015 article in the Washington Post:

Many of those Cubans flew straight into the Miami airport, having boarded flights in Madrid; Nassau, Bahamas; or elsewhere with passports from Spain and other third countries. Upon reaching U.S. Customs, they pull out their Cuban documents and request asylum, or ask to stay under the protections offered by the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which offers permanent residency to Cubans one year after arrival in the United States.

Now, please, take a close look at this “boat.” The rudder is rusted. If you turn it over, the lack of space would be shocking. And really, foam from a mattress? To cross 90 miles of rough seas, some of it in the dark? As one beach patrol employee said, “No one survived this.”

The U.S., as politicians are quick to point out, is a country of refugees. But to the Republicans, these refugees are only cool if they come from Europe or Cuba, and not from any Muslim or predominantly black country like Haiti. And according to Donald Trump, immigrants from Mexico are definitely not welcome and when he becomes prez, a thousand-mile wall is going to make it really difficult for anyone from Mexico to get into the U.S. And nefer mind what he recently said about banning all Muslims.

There’s a common belief that Cuban refugees are predominately conservative because they fled a Communist/Socialist government and that only the children of Cuban refugees are moderately more liberal than their parents. I’m happy to report this isn’t uniformly true. Marina, who was once an emergency room doctor in Cuba, is now living in the U.S., bagging groceries at Publix, and she has a lot to say about American politics.

Marina is in her mid-fifties. Her sister and mother and other members of her family are still living in Cuba. She gets her news from the Spanish TV station, Telemundo, and is proud to tell me that she and her husband believe that Republicans work against their best interests by trying to keep the embargo in place – which makes it more difficult and expensive for her to visit her relatives. Why, she asks, should she have to pay $400 or more for a round trip airfare ticket to her former home, just 90 miles off the Florida coast?

And Marina isn’t alone. Many of her Cuban friends in the same age bracket feel as she does. Marina won a lottery to cone to the U.S., and her husband followed several years later. As she and I walk out to my car, both of us pushing my grocery cart along in front of us, I am reminded of a quote by Che Guevarra: “The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall.”

Idealism without action is an empty call.

That abandoned refugee boat still haunts me. Those refugees died trying to get here.


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