More than 15 hours after his second attempt to reach the United States, Leonardo Herrera was convinced he had finally seen Florida.
The 23-year-old mechanic from Boyeros, Cuba was focused on the rolling waves that rocked and lifted the wooden boat he was carrying, 11 other Cubans, and all of his hopes for a future free of oppression and deprivation. Dolphins followed. And when Herrera raised his eyes, he thought he had seen the coast he dreamed of, even though it was many miles away. His companions exploded with joy. Men hug. The women were crying.
“They really wanted to get there,” Herrera said. “And we were thriving.”
The celebration may have explained why they didn’t notice the US Coast Guard plane until it flew right overhead. Minutes later, the cutter approached. Within four days, he returned to Cuban lands.
On May 28, Herrera became one of hundreds of Cuban immigrants intercepted by the Coast Guard this year. The coronavirus and economic crisis swept through the communist island, leading to an explosion of street protests and a torrent of rafters or rafters for the 90-mile sail across the Florida Straits. With frustration now spreading in the streets and the Cuban regime taking repression, the United States has sternly warned potential refugees to do the same. Herrera doubts they will listen to him.
“Every Cuban who gets on a raft knows the worst can happen,” Herrera said in an interview last week. “I just couldn’t take her here anymore.”
“We don’t want food, we don’t want money. We just want to go.”
The Coast Guard has not verified the exact details of Herrera’s account, but public records confirm that sailors intercepted a boat carrying Cuban immigrants 23 miles south of Key West that day, and that they were repatriated on May 31. The dates agree with Herrera’s story. He provided Bloomberg with handwritten documents showing his return to the island that day, as well as videos and photos of his trip.
Herrera first tried to escape in January. He said he tried to hide on a plane bound for the United States, but was caught by the police and he spent a week in prison.
Back at his parents’ busy home in Boyeros, outside of Havana, he ate a diet rich in beans. Store shelves were emptied and shoppers were squabbling in line. I wanted an easier life.
“One where you come back from work and feel good,” he said. “A place where you don’t have to worry about not having enough rice or chicken to eat.”
Cuba’s economy suffered an extraordinary crash last year, down 11 percent, when the pandemic cut tourism dollars and the Trump administration tightened a six-decade trade embargo. Frustration and desperation have driven thousands of people to flee overland through Mexico, and increasingly by sea.
The Coast Guard says it has arrested 554 Cuban immigrants so far this year, up from 49 in fiscal year 2020. That immigration is down from 5,396 in 2016, when it was enabled by its so-called dry-foot policy. They were given a path to citizenship if Cubans came to the shores of the United States. President Barack Obama rescinded the measure in the closing days of his second term.
Herrera wasn’t worried about his legal status. He sold his computer to pay $400 for a boat powered by one diesel engine. He left Baracoa Beach, about 27 kilometers west of Havana, on May 27. Travel alone with peanuts, bread, water and a backpack with clean clothes.
He grew up hearing about shark attacks and lost migrants at sea. But when the ship departed, relief came quickly. “On the raft, I felt like I was taking a step forward,” Herrera said.
But the next day, as soon as the plane passed, the migrants knew they were going home. One of his companions was praying aloud. Herrera, engulfed in pain, vomited.
“More than 15 hours at sea, in the sun and rain, all in vain,” he said, sobbing.
The migrants were picked up and transferred to another Coast Guard vessel, where two more Cubans were held. They were returned to the island on May 31, weeks before the protests began.
“There are hundreds of people like me who are desperately waiting to see this unfold,” Herrera said. “I’m sure they are waiting to leave.”
Herrera was released from Cuban quarantine on June 5. Soon, he began looking for a passage on another boat.