Freedom Floaters


The Lonely Crossing of Juan Cabrera, by J. Joaquin Fraxedas, New York: St. Martin's Press, 174 pages, $18.98

The Miami Herald calls it "the second wave of elite Cuban refugees" since Castro's takeover. Since 1989, when Cuba's communist experiment began imploding, an estimated 200 to 400 top-level engineers, mathematicians, physicists, and other scientists have fled for U.S. shores. The first elite wave—landowners, business people, executives, doctors, and lawyers—arrived in the 1960s. By contrast, the new refugees, frequently from the academic world, spent decades supporting and benefiting from Castro's regime. For them, the decision to flee often is made after years of silent confusion and inner struggle.

The Lonely Crossing of Juan Cabrera is a novel about the accumulation of denial and disillusionment that precedes the decision to attempt crossing the 90-mile-wide Florida Straits on flimsy rafts—a decision made by thousands of Cubans each year. The tale's central character, Juan, is a physics professor whose father "disappeared" after the revolution. He is joined in his escape by two childhood friends: Raul, a fearless soldier who has just returned from the jungles of Angola, and Andres, who after 12 years as a political prisoner longs to be reunited with his daughter in Miami.

Juan was only 7 when the revolutionaries came and took away his father. His mother explained that the uniformed men had killed him, yet for months afterward Juan climbed his favorite framboyan tree each afternoon and watched for his father's return. When he and his mother moved to a government-assigned apartment in Havana, Juan began hiding his sweet childhood memories and, later, constructing the lies necessary to get ahead: His mother had been a maid, his father had been killed fighting beside Fidel, everything but the truth—that he was from a family of latifundistas (landowners).

Thirty years later, Professor Cabrera finishes his lecture at the university and drives to join his two friends on a North Cuba beach. They lash together three inner tubes and canvas with a few bits of rope and slip into the water. What follows is the three men's struggle atop their rafts—against hunger, loneliness, uncertainty, and the blistering sun—to keep from throwing themselves into the sea.

J. Joaquin Fraxedas's novel is a stirring depiction of the rafters' psychological and physical struggle. On the fifth day at sea, Juan's head is awash with "the deep, awesome voices of the beasts of the sea. They called to him and offered him pleasant things, as they did in the nursery rhymes of his infancy where fish and other marine creatures offered food and drink to little boys visiting the bottom of the sea. The animal voices said, 'leave the raft and join us, and you will see how nice everything will be.'"

At another point, the relief of death appears to Juan as a woman: "She was real, and warm, and now he felt her wrap her arms around him, pulling him slowly, with infinite promise, toward her womb. So he loosened his grip on the nylon rope and began to slip gently into her arms."

As Juan's raft floats away, his father's voice calls him: "I know you stayed up in the tree because you were afraid after what they did to me. But I understood and was not sad. And I knew you would come looking for me." Juan suddenly realizes he finally has faced the truth, chosen once and for all to reject his "pitiful life of dissembling, of fabricating," and he lunges to reach the rope.

The novel also follows the struggle of Cuban pilots in Miami who try to help their compatriots reach freedom by locating them at sea and radioing for their rescue. Day after day, they fly over the Florida Straits in a race to reach the rafters before the Grim Reaper. About one in every three rafts they locate is empty. Alberto, known in the Keys as "the pilot who's always looking for raft people," in 30 years has never spotted a rafter. Yet whenever he hears that some Cubans have left on a raft, he takes to the skies in his Cessna.

Some recent defectors now living in Florida maintain that the old-guard exiles there are suspicious of them because they left some three decades after the revolution. But the author himself is one such first-wave refugee—he fled Cuba in 1960 at the age of 10 with his mother and his two younger siblings—and his novel is very sympathetic to the new freedom floaters.

Fraxedas's account of hallucinations at sea and other aspects of the rafters' journey depicts well the actual experience of Cubans who are fleeing on inner tubes, styrofoam blocks, anything that floats. His tale is based largely on interviews with the lucky few who have successfully floated to freedom. For every Cuban rafter who reaches Florida, three are lost at sea or captured by the Cuban coast guard.

Fraxedas, an Orlando attorney and a pilot by avocation, has recently been hitting the speaking circuit with Jose Basulto, who heads the real-life counterparts of the search-and-rescue pilots depicted in the book. In 1991 Basulto and a fellow Bay of Pigs veteran, Billy Schuss, founded Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue). These volunteer pilots, who search for rafters and radio the U.S. Coast Guard when they spot one, are an international brotherhood. Flyers from the United States, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, and Nicaragua have joined Cuban-American aviators in the privately funded effort.

Fraxedas wrote the novel, his first, in English; a Spanish translation was done by his uncle, Raoul Garcia Iglesias, a Miami writer whose short stories and poetry are known throughout the hemisphere. Betting on the market of Spanish readers in the United States, St. Martin's Press released The Lonely Crossing of Juan Cabrera in English and Spanish simultaneously—a first for a major U.S. publisher.

The Lonely Crossing of Juan Cabrera will be appreciated by anyone who has struggled to reach freedom in a free land—the Cuban, the Haitian, the East German before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The book also speaks to native-born citizens of free nations who want to better appreciate the liberty that was theirs by birthright and to every traveler who wishes that more people could go abroad, to the lands of the "un-free," to better understand how precious is that birthright. Such travelers, who often find themselves groping for words to explain the repression they have seen abroad, will find this an important book to give or to recommend.

Melanie Tammen is a free-lance writer in Winter Park, Florida, and an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute.