Lifeboat From Cuba
In 2019 my wife and I went to Cuba so we could see and experience Cuban life and culture firsthand. It was a bucket list trip that I doubted would ever be checked off my list. Between the logistics, our schedules, and the everchanging U.S./Cuban politics, it just did not seem likely to happen. But the winds of good fortune blew our way while I was working in the Cayman Islands. With Travel restrictions lifted, we climbed onto a Cayman Airlines flight in the last week of April. Just over an hour later we landed in Cuba and processed through Cuban immigration. Not long after that we were checked into our hotel in Old Havana and began exploring the city. I could write an entire book on the five-day trip, but that is perhaps for another time.
Cuba is a county that is a contradiction to itself. There are over eleven million people who live in forty-two million square miles of inexcusable poverty. It is an island nation with resources that are abundant yet out of reach of almost all the people who live there. Cuba has millions of acres of farmland, but farmers are only allowed by law to own one cow. It is an island nation, surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico to the north and the Caribbean Sea to the south, but it’s illegal for locals to catch and eat lobsters and the quantity of fish they can catch is limited by the Cuban government. Old Havana is a beautiful city that looks like Paris or Milan, except that it has not been maintained for the past seventy-five years. It is a once glamorous city that is now crumbling to the ground. Most Cubans are paid about thirty-five dollars a month to live on. Doctors and lawyers are paid sixty-five dollars a month. Living on those amounts are nearly impossible, and with few exceptions, the only Cubans who are prosperous are government officials whose sole job is to look out for the welfare of their citizens and their nation. Most of the population survives on the black market, which is tolerated by the Cuban government but make no mistake, they can change their mind and arrest people for using the black market anytime they so choose. Food shortages are as common as the blue skies of the Caribbean and Cuban justice is whatever the government says that it is. Period. That justice is often nothing more than flagrant miscarriages of justice.
With all that said, Cuban people are wonderful to be around. Their humility and their warmth are second to none. And their charm, the food and their music and vibe are as inviting as any Caribbean Island we have had the honor to experience. And Cubans have one more thing in common with people throughout the islands and with people from all around the globe. They dream of having a better life. But like so many oppressed populations throughout history and in the world today, the first step for them to have a better life is to escape the brutal oppression of their homeland and flee to a place that will allow them to work and dream and accomplish goals that are not allowed to exist in the place they call home.
Leap forward to July 2022 and to the boat that you see in the pictures. This boat was how four brave Cubans took their first step towards a better life. Three men and one woman spent twelve days and nights in this tiny homemade boat and by some miracle made their way from Cuba to Grand Cayman. I wasn’t at the jobsite when they landed on the north shore of Grand Cayman, but workers who were there told me that the sailors looked rough when they paddled to shore. They were hungry and thirsty and worn and haggard, and they were out of Cuba. Before you think something along the line of, people sail from Cuba to Florida all the time. What’s the big deal? The big deal is that the United States is twenty-seven hundred miles wide and if you are sailing from the northern side of Cuba towards Florida, the North American continent is simply impossible to miss. Cayman is twenty-two miles from one end to the other. And if someone who sails from the southern shores of Cuba in a fourteen-foot homemade boat miscalculates their navigation, or the winds or the currents are not favorable and they miss landing on the shores of Grand Cayman, it’s a death sentence. The four refugees were out of food and water when they landed, and the next landfall for them beyond the Cayman Islands would have been Central America. It’s at least another twenty days of sailing in their tiny boat, without provisions, while praying that the seas are kind and no storms or pirates come their way. If any of a dozen things went wrong, they would have simply drifted off into the abyss and would have never been heard from or about again.
Their fear filled high seas adventure was only step one in their journey. Once they were on the shores of freedom, government official came and picked them up. They were given food and water and medical attention as needed and then moved to an immigration detention center, where as far as the refugees were aware, there future was uncertain. As of November 28th, 2022 there were 335 Cubans being detained in Grand Cayman, awaiting their fate.
As we all wander through our day to day lives and plug away at whatever goal that we seek to achieve, we should keep the picture of this small boat pinned to the wall or hanging on the refrigerator, or at the very least, saved into our memory. And when things are not going exactly right and the tides of good fortune are not magically lapping at our feet, we should ask ourselves some questions.