Cuban migrant: 10 days at sea before reaching shores of Florida were 'the worst of my life'

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MIAMI — On their sixth day at sea, the nine Cuban men aboard a small homemade metal boat watched in despair as their motor ran out of gas. They had only one can left and there were miles of sea still ahead.

"We were very afraid," Antonio Cardenas Viejo, 50, recalled.

They dumped food and even the boat's sail into the water to make the vessel lighter. Then they began to row.

Four days later, they reached the shores of South Florida. Beaching their craft beside an upscale Florida condominium Tuesday, they jubilantly ran ashore as residents greeted them with cries of, "Welcome to the land of liberty!"

On Wednesday, the men recounted their 10-day journey from Cuba to the U.S. Dressed in new jeans and matching blue and white striped polo shirts given to them by aid workers, the men said the trip was much longer and arduous than they had imagined. They warned other Cubans thinking of leaving by boat not to take to the sea.

"There's a fever right now," Jose Ramon Fuente Lastre, 23, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "There are a lot of people making rafts, many people who want to come."

"I would advise them that it's dangerous," he said. "We made it by a miracle."

The number of Cubans leaving on homemade boats has risen significantly in the past year. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 3,639 have been stopped at sea or made it to shore in Florida and other parts of the Caribbean, up from 2,129 in the 2013 fiscal year.

Just along the shores of South Florida, 780 Cubans have arrived in the last 12 months, compared to 423 in the previous year.

Under the "wet-food, dry-foot" policy, Cubans who reach U.S. soil are generally allowed to stay. Those who are caught at sea are almost always returned to the island.

The men who arrived Tuesday said they chose to flee because of mounting economic difficulties. None could afford to buy an airplane ticket and travel to a third country, as thousands of Cubans do to escape each year, making their way to the U.S. by plane or across the Mexican border. But they could pool their money together to build a boat.

"Let's try our luck," Viejo said. "If others have done it, why not us?"

Viejo sold his horse and other farm animals, which brought in about $650. Lastre put in his life's savings, about $550, earned by selling food on the black market. Two other men pawned their houses on the black market.

Three times the men put their boat into the sea, only to have the motor break down and the vessel fill up with water just barely offshore. Each time, they bought a new motor and tried again.

On Sept. 13, they boarded the boat at 2 a.m. This time, it chugged far out to sea.

"Adios!" fishermen yelled out to them. "Adios!" they yelled back.

The first six days went relatively smoothly, the men said. Then the motor ran out of gas and fear set in.

None of the men had been on a boat before. They had only a compass and an old map of Cuba, the southern tip of Florida stretching down from the top, to guide them.

Viejo, the oldest of the group, urged them to press on.

"Let's keep rowing," he told them. "We're going to arrive."

The next day, they saw lights in the distance. They rowed on, through stretches of rain and one powerful storm with waves more than 13 feet high.

"Those 10 days were the worst of my life," Yennier Martinez Diaz, 32, said. "I thought we were going to drown."

As they came within sight of Key Biscayne, Florida, they put the last can of gas into the motor engine and sped toward land, fearful they would be caught by the Coast Guard just before reaching the shore. They came ashore along the beach outside the Mar Azul condominium, where a few residents were outside on a gray day.

"Are you Cubans?" they asked excitedly.

"Yes, we're Cubans," the men responded.

"Welcome to the land of liberty!" the residents cried.

Viejo raised his hands into air, a smile stretching across his face as he remembered the moment.

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