In search of a Cuban chug

A single-engine fishing boat floats off Big Pine Key. The vessel brought three men from Cuba to the Florida Keys on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2015. U.S. Border Patrol
A single-engine fishing boat floats off Big Pine Key. The vessel brought three men from Cuba to the Florida Keys on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2015. U.S. Border Patrol

Fidel Castro was not the first to cause an exodus of Cuba’s people. The first to flee were populations of aboriginal Indians after a Hispaniola (Dominican Republic) chief named Hatuey traveled to Cuba and warned of the egregious treatment experienced at the hand of the Spanish.

In one instance, the Spanish collected some of the island’s chieftains and burned them alive. Native Cubans, fighting warfare, enslavement, and the introduction of Old World diseases to which they had no immunity, took to dugout canoes to escape — especially after Spanish forces led by Diego Velazquez, with a little help from Hernando Cortes, conquered Cuba in 1511.

In modern times, Castro’s politics have been behind a nearly six-decades-long exodus of Cuban refugees largely represented by four waves. The first wave to leave came to America in the years immediately surrounding Castro’s rise to power and overthrow of the government (1959-1962).

When the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was signed into law, it opened American borders to any Cuban who reached the shore. Because of Castro’s politics, those escaping the country were assigned refugee status under international law and granted them rights not afforded those people arriving from other island nations.

The second wave began October 10, 1965 when the port of Camarioca was declared open to anyone who wanted leave. Before departure, however, it was necessary to forfeit all property and land to the government. Carmarioca remained open until November 15. Because thousands of Cubans still wanted to leave, they were boarded and delivered via chartered vessels and commercial aircraft flying what became known as “Freedom Flights.”

The third wave of Cuban refugees came when Mariel Harbor was declared open on April 20, 1980 where, again, those who wanted to leave were allowed. The open harbor policy at Mariel was canceled October 31, 1980.

The fourth wave began in 1989 as a struggling Soviet Union, one that would be shortly collapsing, was no longer able to operate as Cuba’s principal support system. Cubans, desperate for a better life, climbed aboard old boats and makeshift vessel in hopes of keeping afloat long enough, if not to make it to shore, than to be rescued by the Coast Guard in U.S. territorial waters. Once within territorial boundaries, Cubans were initially taken to an American port where they would begin their process toward a legal path to citizenship.

In 1994 policy changed and Cuban refugees intercepted out at sea were returned to Cuban officials. The Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot policy, enacted in 1995, essentially said that Cuban refugees intercepted at sea would be returned, but those who made it to dry land would be processed and forwarded along a legal path to citizenship.

The vessels desperate Cubans boarded in hopes of landing on an American shore have been given names like rafts, balsas, and chugs. The term boat, too, is sometimes used, though many times this designation is a charitable one. These vessels, no matter what they are called, are often constructed from whatever their builders can wrap their fingers around. Some of the more primitive ones are tied together with inner tubes, wooden planks, rope, canvas, 55-gallon barrels and, maybe, a makeshift mast or some sort of lawn mower or tractor engine that has been rigged to spin a propeller.

Mechanical failure was always a possibility, as was the fact that stormy conditions could deconstruct the vessel and cast anyone aboard into the ravages of the ocean in the blink of an eye. The government, too, patrolled the waters, both Cuban and American, and some percentage of those attempting the journey would be stopped in one or the other’s territorial waters. Providing patrol boats were avoided, the Florida Straits could not.

The body of water separating the two countries has been wreaking havoc on ships built by professional craftsmen for hundreds of years. The swift current of the Gulf Stream is capable of slowly pushing a ship off course and right into an intricate system of thousands of individual coral reefs. Tropical storm systems, too, spawned from the warm water are capable of whipping up hurricane force winds, blinding rain, and pounding waves.

Still, for decades, the passage has been attempted by a desperate people willing to risk their lives for the chance at something better. For decades many of these primitive vessels have successfully navigated the Florida Straits and landed on both the Florida peninsula and the Florida Keys. When the Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot policy ended in 2017, the number of Cuban rafts, balsas, or chugs has practically ground to a halt.

The arrival of Cuban people desperate enough attempt the harrowing crossing and landing on the Florida Keys is an important part of our history and, putting on my curator’s cap, one that needs to be told. That being said, if there is a Cuban chug out there looking for a home, I am keen on creating an outdoor exhibit with interpretive panels.

If you have a chug between 15-18 feet long that you would like to see get an educational home, please contact me through my email address below or call me at (305) 395-9889.

Brad Bertelli is an Upper Keys historian and curator of the Keys History & Discovery Center. The author of five books on Florida and Florida Keys history, his column appears every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at