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Sal - Remembering Los Balseros of 1994
Friday, May 20, 2005   By: Juan Paxety

Tribute to those who went down to the sea in rafts

Sal.  Sal.  One word written in pencil on a strip of adhesive tape and stuck to the side of a multi-colored plastic cup.  Sal - the primary meaning is salt - a staple of life.  A secondary meaning is misfortune.

I found the cup with its one word in the fall of 1994.  A couple of months earlier, fidel's policies had caused food riots in Havana. He decided to allow some of the people who no longer wanted to live on his island worker's paradise to leave.  And leave they did.  They boarded anything that could float, resolvered rafts made of welded rebar, Styrofoam, fiberglass, PVC tubes, and huge Chinese-made inner tubes from tractor tires.  They pushed their craft into the shark-filled Florida Straits, and sought freedom.  At the time, the U.S. Coast Guard still rescued escaping Cubans - plucked them off their rafts and took them to asylum in the United States.  The rafts of those lucky people were marked with brightly colored signs that read "O.K. - U.S. Coast Guard."

The rafts themselves, some emptied by rescue, some by the sea and sharks, drifted northward and landed on the beaches of northeast Florida - from New Smyrna Beach north to St. Augustine. . I walked the beaches for miles and miles, carrying my old Speed Graphic camera with its bad shutter, to photograph the wrecks. I found the cup, with its one handwritten word jammed into a corner of one of the empty rafts. The inside had filled with sand.

I frequently found a clump of tourists looking at a beached raft, and I took the opportunity to rail against castro. I asked each group of gawkers to think about what conditions must be like in Cuba for a human being to board such a vessel and sail out into the sea.  I ask you the same.

I searched the remains of the "Sal" raft for one of the Coast Guard signs.  I could find none.  I pray the sign was washed away,  and that the people have found the salt-of-life that freedom is - and any misfortune befalls the bearded dictator who sent them down to the sea in makeshift rafts.

Read Babalu throughout the day for more live-blogging from Cuba Nostalbia.


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