Arturo Cobo, coordinator, Cuban Transit Home and Museum, Key West, Florida
Lazara Pittman, immigration attorney
Various Cuban refugees
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: This is Common Ground. In 1994 tens of thousands of Cubans took to the dangerous waters of the
Florida Straits in homemade boats and rafts. Very few actually made it to the United States in this desperate reach for freedom.
YOUNG FEMALE CUBAN REFUGEE (via a translator): The waves were huge. I couldn’t hold on. My mother just hugged me
DAVIDSON: On this edition of Common Ground we hear from some of the survivors and the efforts to preserve the memory
of this last mass exodus from Cuba.
ARTURO COBO: I’m talking about the children. I’m talking about the people, the new generation of Cubans, that they have to
know the kind of price, the high price, that our people pay trying to reach for freedom.
DAVIDSON: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley
Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
COBO: In the 1990s, the people started arriving here in the coast in rafts, so we was very concerned that we can give a big
welcome to our brothers and sisters. The situation that they, that at that time was, that they came here, they was in the Coast Guard
base for 4 or 5 days. A bus came from Miami, from the Border Patrol. They put them in the bus, take them to Crome Detention Center and
they stay there for an indefinite time. So as a Cuban I believe that was a contradiction that these people, they risk their life trying
to reach this country that has opened their arms to everybody to escape a big jail that is Cuba right now, and go to a small jail in United States.
DAVIDSON: Arturo Cobo was Coordinator of the Cuban Transit Home in Key West, Florida, during the 1994 exodus. Because Key West is the
closest US land to Cuba, only 90 miles away in fact, many of the rafters landed there first. And, it’s where the US Coast Guard brought rafters
it picked up at sea. Cobo himself fled Fidel Castro’s regime in 1960 when he was 18 years old. He wanted to make sure these newest Cuban
exiles had a proper welcome.
COBO: So Immigration, Coast Guard, knows that as soon as they interview them they give them to us. We contact the Catholic Conference
and the Church World Service in Miami. We make arrangement to feed them here in this place. We’re talking about giving food, giving doctors,
medicine, clothing. And the church was happy because that’s exactly what Jesus Christ say. Give water to the thirsty. Give clothing to the
one that don’t have clothes and giving food to the ones that are hungry. So we was very happy here receiving different people from my country.
We’re talking about people that political oppression they escape. People from the Cuban Border Patrol, in Cuba. People from Castro families.
People from the intelligence agency inside of Cuba. And we giving a welcome. It’s the first time that these people came and see, and old Cubans,
that they don’t ask them the question, just;”Welcome to America. Welcome to freedom. And we are here, brothers and sisters, to help you and to assist you.”
DAVIDSON: Cobo and other volunteers even put together their own volunteer search and rescue operation for the rafters.
COBO: We got here a plane. We’re calling it Solidarity Operation. We discovered them, the plane discovered them. You see here we got a big
boat here, more than a 100-foot boat—big boat. We used to go close to them, contact the Coast Guard and tell them we are here with the brothers. They
give the instruction, put them in the boat, wait for us there. The Coast Guard came, picked them up, take them to Key West, and then they see me here,
rescue them, and when they open the door, they see me here, saying “Welcome.” So that was a air, water, and land operation.
DAVIDSON: 1994’s exodus was the third largest displacement of Cubans since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. The first, when Arturo Cobo left,
occurred in the early ’60s. Next was the Mariel Boat Lift in 1980, when 120,000 Cubans arrived in South Florida, practically overnight. How many people
took to the dangerous, shark-infested waters in 1994, is not really known. We do know that 10,400 Cubans passed through the Cuban transit home in Key West.
COBO: You have to realize that the Coast Guard statistic, that for every four people trying to leave my country, only one make it. And if it’s right,
more than 30,000 refugees are in the middle of the straits of Florida and they are in the bottom of the straits of Florida, eaten by sharks—children, women,
men, old people—trying to reach this place. That’s the price that they pay to reach freedom.
DAVIDSON: And these two survivors of the exodus explained upon their arrival in Key West in 1994, why they decided to risk their lives at sea.
MALE CUBAN REFUGEE (via a translator): Life is hard. No one can live in Cuba.
MALE CUBAN REFUGEE (via a translator): There is no food. The government can’t guarantee basic goods. Children lack milk. It’s a disaster. So we throw
ourselves into the sea.
DAVIDSON: Because they were fleeing on anything that could float, most never made it to the United States. They used board, lashed together; homemade
row boats; whatever they could find, and many either perished at sea or were imprisoned in Cuba for attempting to escape. This woman tells of a brutal attack
on a tugboat sunk by the Castro regime seven miles off the coast of Cuba. Forty-one people died.
FEMALE CUBAN REFUGEE (via a translator): We were leaving the country on a tugboat at 3:00 a.m. when two firefighting boats approached us. They began
using high pressure hoses against us. The children were screaming. My 8-year-old daughter asked, “Why are they throwing so much water at us?” We looked behind us.
They began bumping us. That’s when our boat sank. I held on to a floating body. A drowned woman. I held the body. But the waves came and then I couldn’t.
DAVIDSON: This man and woman were only 15 miles from the shores of the United States when their boat was attacked.
MALE CUBAN REFUGEE (via a translator): At about 25 kilometers off the American coast we were approached by two Cuban Coast Guards, bigger than us. They
attacked us fiercely. They destroyed our boat, even though we were in international waters. They did not care we had women, children and elderly on board.
FEMALE CUBAN REFUGEE (via a translator): We screamed and asked them to please stop for the children’s sake. I lost my voice. They said they would destroy
us, that we deserved only to sink.
DAVIDSON: And if they weren’t being pursued by the authorities the rafters were always battling the elements.
MALE CUBAN REFUGEE (via a translator): We were tired. We lasted a long time but we were exhausted and one of us fell unconscious into the sea. I heard the
water and dove in to help him. It was useless. It was night time, very dark. One could lose anything.
YOUNG FEMALE CUBAN REFUGEE (via a translator): The waves were huge. I couldn’t hold on. My mother just hugged me tight.
MALE CUBAN REFUGEE (via a translator): The second day, the 18th, my father started feeling ill, vomiting. Then he turned delirious. It was cold.
We had no food, no water. The next day, when we woke up, he was dead.
DAVIDSON: Arturo Cobo was incensed when the United States changed its immigration policy in the midst of this exodus and sent many of the refugees back to Cuba.
COBO: At that time the President should be so strong to tell, to send a strong message to Fidel Castro and say, “No, we don’t want to accept this. We’re
going to blockade Cuba, the same that they did in with the Haitians.” I don’t know why he did it in Haiti and he don’t did it with Cuba. And to stop Fidel Castro
there, telling, “Okay, Castro, whatever you send we’re going to receive it.” Then he make another mistake, saying, “You going to say, okay, we’re going
to receive you. Open your arms and your heart.” He don’t did that. He send these people to Cuba again. He put them in Guantanamo, that in-Cuba possession.
DAVIDSON: People who had arrived in Key West?
COBO: Exactly. We’re talking about 32,000 refugees. Put them in Guantanamo, put them in a concentration camp, with guards that was training to enemies, to treating
with enemies. Not to treating with people, that they left our, their country for oppression, for a Communist system. And it’s the first time in the history of this country
that people that escape from oppression, I’m talking, we say, communist oppression, have no big welcome in this country, and send them to, are given this kind of treatment.
DAVIDSON: Now the Cuban Transit Home in Key West has become a museum to preserve the memory of the Exodus. Outside, on this windy day in 1998, are some of the
makeshift boats and rafts, often found empty, that washed up on the shores of Key West, four years ago.
COBO: For example, do you imagine, with the, like I told you, with the weather condition, Castro if he saw you he shoot you, you can get lost, you can get eaten by
sharks, and if you have weather like this? For example today, I going to show you now, you get a piece of this…
DAVIDSON: A piece of that Styrofoam. Is that Styrofoam that you make the…
COBO: If you had bad weather, no way that you can make it to the United States. This is my…
DAVIDSON: It just breaks off in chunks.
COBO: Exactly. This is my, what I’m trying to say.
DAVIDSON: Do you know if the people who came on this raft, which I don’t know…
COBO: They made it.
DAVIDSON: They did make it?
COBO: Yes. They made it. The got a good…
DAVIDSON: Do you know how many were on that raft?
COBO: Yeah, it was about four.
DAVIDSON: Inside the Transit Center Museum the men’s and women’s dorms are intact. The bunks are still made up. And the walls are covered with photos of those
who passed through the Transit Center during those months in 1994.
COBO: These people came, three guys—two brothers.
DAVIDSON: Three guys on this raft that’s made with….
DAVIDSON: ….two inner tubes.
COBO: Right. And this one was tied to this one. Because it was two brothers. Valentine and the other brother. So six miles from here these guys fell from the raft.
DAVIDSON: Six miles from Key West?
COBO: Six miles. They see the light and they was, they was already here. He went to move and he fell. Let me tell you one thing. Most of, the biggest, most,
a big percent of these people that came on a raft like that, they don’t know how to swim. Something else. They say, very interesting statistic that we make here.
They don’t know how to swim.
DAVIDSON: And they’re on these very unstable…
COBO: This happened to this guy. He fell. His brother tried to save him and almost died too. Was a time where he was already, he can hang to his brother.
And this one took him by the hair, pulled him out. And the brother disappeared. He went to the hospital the day after that. The body of his brother show up, he
was eaten by shark. Half of his body was eaten by sharks. And we buried him. We move here.
DAVIDSON: And then you’ve got cases here of things that people brought with them?
COBO: Yeah, what they’re using, yes, while they’re using the Transit Center. And we’re talking about a lantern…
COBO: …binoculars, watch, flashlights. Water. See the water that they… Machetes that they use. And Cuban money. Sea surfs. Oh yeah, a lot of compasses.
And I got a nice story for you. I got a very nice story here. This is a bug light. Okay?
DAVIDSON: Oh, a lightening bug! Okay.
COBO: A lightening bug.
DAVIDSON: A firefly.
COBO: These people left Cuba and as most of them don’t have any, at night is the time where they left.
DAVIDSON: Oh, they leave in…
COBO: Yeah, they leave in night…
DAVIDSON: …in the dark.
COBO: And was the point, that they don’t know whether it was north, south, west or east? And they say, “we should be going this way?” And then
one of them say, “Wait a minute. We want to find out. Give me the compass.” He got a bug light in his.
DAVIDSON: A firefly.
COBO: Yeah. You have to excuse my English. So he put it on his compass, he say, “No, we go, we’re traveling north, north is this way.”
And this bug was all night giving the, giving the light, enough light, for them to don’t get lost.
DAVIDSON: Because it was so black out there on the ocean they couldn’t read the compass.
COBO: Exactly. Sure. They show up with the bug light alive. So we started giving him food and he die. After we start giving him food he die. We got
him here in the museum.
DAVIDSON: He’s encased now. Framed.
COBO: Yeah. He’s encased, he’s in a frame, because he saved the life of these people.
DAVIDSON: There is one room in the museum whose walls offer a different kind of testimonial to the Cuban rafters. The walls in this room are
plastered with messages from loved ones in the United States searching for relatives they knew had taken to the sea.
COBO: This is the most important room that we got. For example.
DAVIDSON: These walls are…
COBO: Pick one paper. Whatever you want.
DAVIDSON: Let’s just….
COBO: …So I can read it. This one. Okay. This was in June 15, 1994. The family called me. They say, “Okay, Sunday four people came in a raft. Ernesto Cruz Marino.
If you found it call Anna Perez for 642-4852, A14 Northwest 25 Avenue, Miami, Florida.” Ninety percent of these messages, I never got the people arriving in this center.
More than 90%.
DAVIDSON: So these are people in the United States who told you…
COBO: This is the people that, in the United.States, that their family in Cuba call and say, “Hey, my cousin, my brother, my sister, my grandson, my daughter,
is coming, left Cuba in a raft or in a boat. Please let us know as soon here as they arrive so I know that it’s alive.” For example, when I got people that came I used
to go in the radio, Radio Marti, Radio Mambi, WQBA; I talked for about seven radio stations and TV Marti. I’m telling the people from Matansas in a group of 12, the name of
the family, so and so and so and so, so the people that listen on the radio can say, “They alive.”
COBO: See, because you got your daughter, your mother or your father that left here in a raft like that, you praying. You know? So you waiting for somebody to say,
“Hey, they arrived. They alive. Ninety percent of this room that you see here, we don’t know where they at.”
DAVIDSON: Even to this day?
COBO: Even in this day. We never, at that time, and we got, I got a box full of paper like this too. Full, full of paper like this with people missing.
DAVIDSON: And do you assume they died in transit?
COBO: Most of them went to, went in prison. Most of them got.
DAVIDSON: And they were picked up and imprisoned in Cuba?
COBO: Exactly. They put them in prison. Most of the die. We don’t know. We don’t know what was the situation. Remember, if you was captured by the Cuban gunboats,
they don’t shoot you. They decide to see who you were and put you in jail. They don’t notify your family. Part of the punishment that they give you is don’t advise the family.
So you are desperate in Cuba. You got your son in a raft and you call and they’re in jail. And you call the Cuban authorities and they say, “We don’t know. Call United
States. They left in a boat, call United States.” You see. And they know that he’s in Cuba. They don’t help the family. So make it worse. They make it worse.
DAVIDSON: And you’ve got, do you have any idea how many of these small slips of paper are covering the walls of this room?
COBO: We’re talking about thousands of names.
DAVIDSON: We’ll pause here for a short break. You’re listening to Common Ground, a service of the Stanley Foundation. We’re visiting a museum in Key West, Florida,
dedicated to the mass Cuban exodus of 1994. Arturo Cobo was Coordinator of the Cuban Transit Center where the Cuban exiles arrived.
The Stanley Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs. Printed
transcripts and audio cassettes are available of this Common Ground program, and at the end of the broadcast, I’ll give you details on how you can order.
DAVIDSON: While the 1994 immigrants were fleeing Cuba for essentially the same reasons as those in the early ’60s and again in 1980, that is the fear for personal safety,
the lack of civil liberties, and the added collapse of the Cuban economy, there was a major difference in their reception here in the United States. Before 1994, any Cuban who made
it to the United States was classified a refugee. A major change in US immigration law in 1994 deemed those new Cubans illegal immigrants. Lazara Pittman is an immigration attorney
who worked with Cuban clients in Miami during the Mariel boat lift and again in 1994.
LAZARA PITTMAN: In the 1980 boat lift, a lot of the people that came in, the laws cushioned them. And I think at that time the laws pretty much opened their arms to them
and accommodated them. I mean people were coming in so many at a time that the laws, I mean there definitely wasn’t, there weren’t jails to put everybody in and process them the
regular way. So as you may know, a processing station was set up in Key West and people were basically just processed through there. So we really didn’t see a surge of business
at that time because the Cubans that came in didn’t need an immigration lawyer. They were just processed, given a card, and hopefully within a year then they would apply for the
“green card,” the permanent residency card.
DAVIDSON: Was there much problem with the refugees at that time in gaining permanent residency in the United States from the Mariel boat lift?
PITTMAN: No, not really. It was pretty much automatic. The people that had some sort of criminal background of course, those were really scrutinized by Immigration. But,
no, it’s pretty much, you know, they went through the regular adjustment process, applied for residency, and pretty much they got through. They didn’t have a lot of problem.
DAVIDSON: I want to jump to 1994 and the next great exodus from Cuba. And what led to that mass exodus from Cuba?
PITTMAN: It had to do something with the changes in what we called Russia. And I think that people just started getting fed up. Right around that time, in the early 1990s,
Fidel became very lenient in allowing people to start visiting Cuba. People from the United States, exiles. And as people started visiting Cuba, it’s almost like a fire got started.
All of a sudden, these people in Cuba started to realize that there was a world out there, that all the things they were missing out of. And some of them decided that they’d rather
die than keep on, die in the ocean than keep on where they were. I have two cousins—actually, well two cousins that came that landed in Key West around that period on rafts. And I
have a third cousin that spent a year in Guantanamo Bay. He escaped also in a raft and ended a year in Guantanamo Bay. These are young men and they just wanted a better life. There
were, two of them had been jailed.
DAVIDSON: Political prisoners?
PITTMAN: They were jailed because they had been, they had been caught trying to escape. So they are political prisoners because they are considered to have committed treason.
DAVIDSON: They were trying to leave the country?
PITTMAN: Right. And I mean, the stories that I could tell you, just even about them. One of them particularly told me that they locked him up in a 6’x6’little cell that he
could only lay down in sideways. And had absolutely no windows. And all because he tried to leave on a raft.
DAVIDSON: What kind of reception did these rafters get when they came to the United States and how did it differ from the 1980 reception?
PITTMAN: There were different types of receptions. One by the Cuban community, and one by the US Government. The Cuban community welcomes anybody that comes. I mean, we
just open our arms because we just want to help everybody that comes. And we feel that we can find a cubby hole for every person. And so when they started coming, there was an
excitement within the Cuban community. Of let’s help them. We all got together again for food and all these things. And we were, the US government, at first did open its arms
and you know, started doing the same thing pretty much that it had done during Mariel. However, after a few weeks, everything started changing. And by the end of this influx of
rafters, as you know, the policies were changed. Drastically. Finally the US government said that it had reached some sort of agreement with Cuba that people could be, would be,
returned. So that of course stopped the rafters from coming. Because why risk their lives if they would be returned. And I think that if the rafter reached Key West, then the
rafter would be given parole and political asylum, and all that Now if they did not reach Key West, if they were picked up in the waters, then they would not be treated like
that. So, if they picked you up in the middle of the ocean, some laws applied; but if they picked you, if you made it to Key West, then other laws applied. And I think that
even now, even if you, the last time that I, when I was in Miami and my last immigration cases, even if you reached Key West, you still were not automatically admitted.
You still have to go through all the process of political asylum and all these things.
DAVIDSON: This is the process that most other immigrants go through in the United States?
DAVIDSON: Before the United States really allowed any Cuban who made it out of Cuba.
PITTMAN: Basically they came in and they got political asylum or they got some humanitarian parole, and in a year they could apply for permanent residency under the
Cuban Adjustment Act. But you know, I do not think, while I love my people and my heart goes out to them, I always had a problem with that because the Haitians were treated
differently. Haitians in massive boats were arriving on our shores and they were not treated like that. And we know we’re not going to talk about Haiti today, but the situation
in Haiti was devastating.
DAVIDSON: Right. And they were sent back.
PITTMAN: And they were sent back.
DAVIDSON: I’m curious how Cuban-Americans who are here now, if you have a sense of how they feel about the United States changing its policy.
PITTMAN: I think for the most part we understand it. We understand it and we are not necessarily happy with it. But we understand that the United States has to make
policies to protect the United States. And to further the benefits of the United States. And that this is one policy, even just all the other immigration policies that have
changed. And so I think all the Cuban-Americans understand that we’ve had it “good” for a long time and it’s time that, that had to change.
DAVIDSON: Lazara Pittman is an American immigration attorney who worked with Cuban refugees in Miami during the Mariel boat lift in 1980, and again during the mass
exodus from Cuba in 1994. Earlier we heard from Arturo Cobo, Coordinator of the Cuban Transit Home and Museum in Key West, Florida. For Common Ground I’m Mary Gray
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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