Cuba: Safety in the Stars

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In the 41 years since Fidel Castro took power, some 300,000 people, or 4% of Cuba's entire population, have fled the country. And still they flee.

Last week, in the biggest mass escape yet, 91 more Cubans—taxi drivers, doctors, government employees, house wives and children — were resting safely in Mexico after a harrowing four-day journey across the Caribbean.

The refugees started laying their plans last May. For a boat, they decided to expropriate an 85-ft. government lighthouse tender, the H-11, and quickly enlisted the aid of the captain. On the appointed night, while he sailed to the rendezvous, the escapees gathered in the southern swamps four miles inland near the Bay of Pigs, loaded food, water and clothing aboard two flatboats, then pushed off for the sea. Women and children rode on the boats; the men waded ahead, hacking a path through the man grove and bamboo thickets. It took five hours to get through the swamp. Both boats capsized; all supplies were lost. But everyone made it to the spot where the H11 was waiting.

Then began a game of hide-and-seek with the Cuban navy. The refugees repainted the ship's grey deck a nonmilitary white, lettered a new name just below the mast. Up the mast they hoisted a homemade U.S. flag, stitched from fragments of blouses, skirts and underthings. It had 60 stars. "The more stars," said a woman, "the safer we thought we'd be." A Cuban patrol boat trailed the H-11, but bore off, apparently discouraged by the flag. The ship's water supply grew short; there were 100 tins of Russian meat aboard, but it had spoiled. Almost everyone was seasick. One woman had a heart attack; a pregnant woman started hemorrhaging.

At last, after four days and nights, the H11 pulled into the tiny harbor at Cozumel Island, a fishing community eleven miles off the Yucatan peninsula. The Mexicans immediately granted asylum, and within an hour a committee of Cozumel townfolk was rounding up clothing, food and money. Last week the refugees were negotiating U.S. visas for entry to Miami. Their leader, Rafael Rodríguez Alfonso, 48, longtime member of the Cuban underground, is already talking about another move. "We don't want to sit here and eat ham and eggs," he said. "We want to fight."