Freedom Flotilla: a Brave Skipper, a Grateful Family and Angry Florida Critics

updated 05/26/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/26/1980 01:00AM

They come by the hundreds every day—a shivering, seasick multitude brought to freedom on a motley fleet of pleasure craft and fishing boats. Whether to help his failing economy or simply to rid himself of troublemakers, Cuban Premier Fidel Castro has opened a spillway for the rising tide of disenchantment in his country—and some 200,000 of his people may take advantage of it before he shuts the gates again. They report a farewell storm of intimidation by citizens still loyal to Castro—and an often harrowing journey by sea in the hands of free-lance skippers motivated by love and money (some are charging up to $3,000 a head). Still they come, far preferring the unknown risks of flight to the known perils of staying. On these pages are three distinctly different views of the Freedom Flotilla: from a refugee family at the U.S. Naval Base in Key West; from one of the first Cuban-born captains to join in the rescue operation; and from an increasingly vocal minority in Southern Florida who see the influx of refugees as a growing threat.

Backlash in Miami

By last week Jimmy Carter's "open heart and open arms" policy toward the Cuban refugees was becoming an open wound in Southern Florida. A Miami Herald poll found that some three-quarters of Dade County residents feared there were not enough jobs, homes or classrooms to accommodate the wave of new residents. The Herald summarized: "Dade County is the land of the free—and the home of the scared."

Predictably, the refugee issue brought bigotry and xenophobia into ugly view. The Ku Klux Klan turned up to demonstrate near refugee encampments, and the less-organized forces of hyper-Americanism sounded their alarms through radio call-in show host Stan Major. The fears of Garnette Anderson, a mobile-home park tenants' organizer, were fairly typical. "These Cubans are going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg," she said last week. A 67-year-old widow, she traces her dislike for the Cuban refugees to her adult vocational school days in the early 1960s, when she learned that while she was struggling to pay her own tuition, Cuban refugees were getting scholarships and free books from local émigré associations. Now she believes the Cubans will make Southern Florida a separatist enclave like Quebec: "They won't want to be part of the country that offered them haven," she worries.

There was legitimate concern in some quarters that Castro might be emptying his mental hospitals and jails into the U.S. As he processed new arrivals at the Key West naval base, immigration officer A.L. Ahr warned with startling bluntness that 85 percent of the refugees are "convicts, robbers, murderers, homosexuals and prostitutes." (Actually, many refugees reportedly manufactured prison backgrounds with black-market documents to increase their chances of being let out of Cuba.)

White House press secretary Jody Powell announced last week that the screening process would disqualify some 35 percent of the refugees from U.S. residency—and that every effort would be made to insure that Southern Florida took no more than its fair share of the refugee burden. But reason was not apt to calm the likes of housewife Collette Pericht, 39, an early spokeswoman against the Cubans who told the Today show that the refugees "should be put in leaky boats." The remark drew widespread demands that she apologize—and, she claims, several threats on her life. But Pericht remains unrepentant. "I'll shut up," she said last week, "but I'll never apologize."

A selfless mission

One summer night in 1961 Gregory Rodriguez' father awakened him and spirited the young man, his mother, a brother and sister and 12 other relatives to a fishing boat moored next to the Cuban naval base at Mariel. In the dark, the elder Rodriguez started his motor quietly, moved cautiously through the harbor, then broke full throttle for Key West.

This month, in an early wave of the Freedom Flotilla, Gregory Rodriguez, now a 33-year-old fisherman, took his 34-foot lobster boat Trinity back to Mariel. Although one Cuban-American in Miami had offered him $40,000 to bring back the man's relatives, Rodriguez, unlike many skippers, would not accept money. "I just couldn't take anything for what I did," he says. "I would be a hypocrite."

Rodriguez, his wife, Maria, and a crew of four set out for Mariel after midnight. Some eight hours later, "We were met by a Cuban gunboat, with machine guns and two cannons pointed at us," Rodriguez recalls. Escorted to Mariel, the Trinity lay at anchor for nine days while officials located members of Rodriguez' family and passed judgment on their applications to leave—meanwhile fleecing him for the supplies he had to buy. Government supply boats charged $18 for five gallons of water, $48 for a case of beer and $5 for a pack of cigarettes. "Fidel is making a mint off this," says Rodriguez.

Sadly, he had to leave without many relatives; some were detained because they had children of military age, others for no apparent reason. One of his uncles was allowed to leave only at the last minute—and saw his house being ransacked by scavenging neighbors as he left. In all, Rodriguez brought out seven of his own kin, eight relatives of crew members and 78 others. The human cargo seriously overloaded Trinity, built to accommodate only a crew of four plus their catch. "We were lucky," Rodriguez insists. "Many boats come back from Cuba with no relatives at all."

It was a sorry shipload that Trinity disgorged in Key West. Some of the refugees had bad wounds and bruises from beatings by soldiers; one woman's ear had been cut nearly in two by a rifle butt. Almost all of the refugees had become seasick and most were still trembling with fear when they landed. "I felt sorry for these poor people," says Rodriguez. "We had only two raincoats and six towels and everyone was soaking and retching—the boat was like a big bowl of vomit." Rodriguez missed 10 days' work at the height of the fishing season for his mission of mercy, but he has no regrets: "I would have been brokenhearted if I hadn't gotten those people out of there."

A family's ordeal

When the 2 a.m. knock on the door from Castro's police came two weeks ago, Julio Herrera Blanco, 40, was ready. Once before in his career he had run afoul of the Cuban government; as a state labor union functionary in the 1960s, Herrera was arrested for anti-Communist activities and imprisoned for four and a half years. This time Herrera was happy to see the police; they were taking his entire family—his wife, Maria, and children Maria, 11, and Dom, 8—to Mariel and to freedom. Herrera had been seeking official permission to leave Cuba for years. Now in the United States, he plans to work "within the law" to bring attention to the abuses of the Castro government and the plight of those he left behind. "It is necessary that something be done as a gesture of humanity," he says.

To illustrate what he means, Herrera points to his long sentence for giving information about his union to an anti-Castro political group. Yet by Cuban standards it was not an unusual term. Herrera also notes the vindictive-ness of Cuban officials toward those who choose to leave the country. Before boarding their ship, the Herreras were held at an infamous detention camp called "the Mosquito" near Mariel, where some would-be refugees were forced to compete with their guards' hungry dogs for scraps of raw meat, where one toilet served thousands of people, where disease abounded. The Herreras were at the Mosquito only 30 hours—and they count themselves lucky. "There are people who are kept there a long time," says Julio.

Herrera says he risked such mistreatment in Cuba in the hope that his children could grow up unthreatened by it. Until the day he left Cuba, he had never told them that he had been a political prisoner before they were born, fearing that one of them might blurt out the fact in school and cause him to lose his job as a statistician. The notion that his children will be able to talk and learn freely in the U.S. makes Herrera, still bone-weary from his journey, break into a weak smile. As for himself, though he is qualified as a computer operator, he vows, "I will work at any job, wash dishes, clean toilets, anything to live in a free country where I can worship my own God and say what I think. For the first time, I have no fear of the future."

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