One Soldier's epic journey in pursuit of happiness
March 21, 2011
BASRAH, Iraq -- There was no turning back for the 22-year-old native son of Havana, Cuba, as he and three others paddled across the open sea on their tiny boat. Growing up in a country where military service is mandatory, the black market is a common source for staples, and listening to a radio station from the United States is taboo, this Cuban soldier wanted no more.
"When I left Cuba, I just threw my life to whatever happens," said Sgt. 1st Class Luis E. Alfaro, now an American Soldier in the 36th Infantry Division, Texas Army National Guard. "I didn't want to be in Cuba any more, so I just jumped in a boat and started rowing. I escaped."
It was Aug. 19, 1994 when he decided to flee his native country and head to America. The decision to leave those he loved was not an easy one.
"In Cuba, it's awful," Alfaro explained. "Everything is rationed. You have a notebook (with coupons) that said what you can buy in the store. If the coupon is for underwear and soap, and you buy underwear, you can't buy soap."
No longer wanting to live in those conditions, Alfaro was willing to put everything on the line.
"If I had died, so what, at least I tried," he said. His grandmother was aware of his unhappiness and if given the chance to flee, she knew he would.
"When my grandma told me (about) my cousin's plan to escape, I said, 'Hey, yeah, of course I'll leave right now,'" he said. "At that point I was ready to leave, but my grandma told me I needed to tell my parents." But I didn't want anything to hold me back. I didn't want to get sentimental and talk to my mom, to my dad."
Wanting to avoid too many people knowing of his plans, Alfaro decided to tell only his father, who supported his decision in the end.
"My dad and grandma knew about it. That's it," said Alfaro. "You cannot tell everybody because some people wanted to leave (too) and they would attack you just to get your boat."
The money his father gave him, and the little he had saved, was added to the rest of the money collected to purchase a boat his cousin Lorenzo knew the owner was willing to sell. He and Lorenzo made the hour and a half trip by truck to a rural town where the farmer had the boat in his back yard. It took them another two hours to get to the beach site.
Unbeknownst to Alfaro, his father drove to their departure site to bid farewell to his son one last time. By the time he arrived, they had already paddled away. It was not until 11 days later that he and the rest of his family learned by radio what had happened to Alfaro.
The boat was no larger than a dingy, and its crew of four brought only some potable water, boiled eggs, crackers, and other light items.
"You have to eat light," said Alfaro. "Whatever you eat, or if you puke, you have to do it inside the boat so you don't attract any wild life."
The crew faced more than 100-mile stretch of ocean from Cuba to Key West, Florida, with no compass or navigational aids.
"There was a factory, kind of in the Matanzas Province, like in the central part of the island," Alfaro said. "It had a big old chimney with fire on top. You can see it for many miles. As long as I'm centered with that and the North Star, it'll get me right on South Florida."
On their first day at sea, the tiny crew saw some F-15s, helicopters and a few boats, but by nightfall all the movement had stopped. Then the storm hit. Cold, wet, and petrified, the crew found themselves in the middle of a moonless sea under a lashing rain. By midnight, there was no sight of land.
"It was wavy. It got to the point when you were paddling, the paddle was in the air," said Alfaro. "The (boat) was pointing down and half the boat was full of water."
"We just kept rowing all night. One person on the boat started to get paranoid, a little stressed out. He said 'I want to go back, this is enough for me. I don't want to die.'"
"I told my cousin, 'Man, I'm not going to go back. It was a (matter of) principal. 'I don't want to go back and say I couldn't make it because I was scared."
The storm passed the following morning. Seeing another crew of 15-to-20 people on a raft made of fiberglass and rubber tubes, the tiny crew calmed down. They continued to paddle, alternating two on and two off.
"We kept rowing nonstop," explained Alfaro. "We don't want to waste time because the heat will dehydrate you, the sun will tear you up."
As darkness approached on the second day, they saw a light that appeared to be bopping up and down due to the effects of the waves.
"Man, when I saw light, I saw heaven," Alfaro said. "At first, I thought it was some oil (rig), something like that, or it could be the Coast Guard."
He got excited and proposed a plan to the larger crew.
"Their boat, whatever they called that thing they had, it was big," Alfaro continued. "It wasn't that fast. Ours was. So we started rowing, man. We started rowing about eight-thirty or nine. As we started getting closer, we saw the light getting higher and higher above the water. Now, I thought it was a lighthouse. It would go dark, then it would light up a little bit, then go dark again."
"We started getting closer and closer. We were probably three blocks away, it was (getting) bigger, and I started to get excited," Alfaro said. "Moments later, the light "lit up like a freakin' night club."
The lights Alfaro saw were those of the Coast Guard. It was near midnight and the Coast Guard monitored their every movement and, in Spanish, warned them not to come any closer until given instructions to do so.
"So they threw the big old net out," Alfaro said. "We climbed the net. They gave us medical attention, made sure that we were okay. I mean, they treated us well."
The exhausted crew was given a blanket and food. Exhausted, they soon fell asleep. Later, they mentioned the other crew members they had left behind. The Coast Guard was already aware of the situation.
At daybreak the larger crew was rescued. That morning, the Coast Guard took the defectors to a Navy ship where they were met by Immigration and Naturalization Service personnel. They would be welcomed to the United States and not sent back to Cuba.
"That was glory for me," Alfaro said with a big smile. "I was very excited. It was worth it. Now I'm here. If I can make it, I can help my family."
The ship was heading north, but then it unexpectedly made a u-turn bound for Cuba. Alfaro arrived at Guantanamo Bay Aug. 24. It was still Cuba, but to Alfaro it was a different place, a different life.
"When we first arrived we couldn't go anywhere. We were locked down in our camps," Alfaro said. "At that point, I was happy to sleep in my cot, live in a tent, until they tell me it's time to go (to the US). I didn't care if it took me two weeks or two years."
While in Guantanamo Bay, Alfaro recalls meeting a fellow countryman who wanted to protest the living conditions of the camp and asked if he would participate.
"In Cuba, if you protest, you're probably going to disappear," he said. "There are no legal rights. When you are in a place where they don't have to accept you and they are taking you in, feeding you, giving you respect, giving you rights, listening to what you've got to say, and you want to protest to them' It didn't make any sense."
Alfaro wanted no part of the protest. He felt the living conditions were better than what he had before coming to Guantanamo Bay.
While living there as a refugee, Alfaro, who was a swimmer at the province level and played water polo for eight years, volunteered to be a lifeguard for the camp beaches. On Jan. 30, 1996, seventeen months and twelve days from the day he defected, he was finally sent to America. He spent the next few years driving two-ton trucks for a living in Miami. He took some college courses and tried to learn English.
"I wanted to get a degree in sports because that's what I did all my life," Alfaro said. "But if I go to college, I can't help my parents. I drove trucks, but to make money you have to spend a lot of time on the road."
He decided that joining the Army was his best option to gain a profession, learn English, and support his family in Cuba, which he had already been sending some money. After serving in the Cuban army, he felt that the U.S. Army couldn't be any worse.
"In Cuba, they catch you right away after high school. It's mandatory," he said. "They give whatever MOS (military occupational specialty) they want to give you. They pay you seven Cuban pesos per month. It was awful."
"All my life growing up in Cuba, they talk so bad about the United States," said Alfaro. "They said, 'It's a big monster. You don't want to be there. You're going to be discriminated (against). They're going to kill you, and this and that.'"
For Alfaro, his experience as an American has been exactly the opposite. He said that what he learned growing up in Cuba was all propaganda.
"If they (the U.S.) are so bad, why do people join the Army voluntarily'" he asks. "When I decided to join the military, it was payback (in a patriotic sense) for me. Not that I have to pay ..."
He pauses for almost a full minute. His eyes start to glisten and he clears his throat.
"In Cuba, they have to live every day to find what you're going to eat that day. (Each) day is so rough. There is no future. No expectations. You cannot have goals."
On Nov. 20, 1998, Alfaro enlisted in the active-duty Army as a legal alien for three years, and did a tour on a peacekeeping mission in Kuwait in 1999. He transferred to the National Guard in 2001 and went on his second tour in Talil, Iraq, in 2006.
Seven and half years after he defected, on Feb. 21, 2002, Alfaro was naturalized a U.S. citizen, an event that he still recalls with powerful emotions.
"It was a big accomplishment. For me to become a citizen is like nothing is impossible. Just go for it. Nothing was impossible when I left Cuba. It changed me incredibly."
Afraid of heights, but refusing to let anything become an obstacle, Alfaro attended air assault and airborne school for promotion points.
"There are no obstacles. You can go as far as you want to go."
"I did not do everything perfect, I made mistakes," said Alfaro. "But you don't measure a person when they fall. It's about how they get up and keep on walking. If something goes wrong, it cannot be any worse than what I've been through."
In Guantanamo Bay, Alfaro wore a plastic bracelet that was issued to the refugees for monitoring their activities.
"I saved the bracelet because it's my past ... a part of me," Alfaro said. "I look at it every day because it means I came from nothing."
"People sometimes take what they have for granted," he explains. "When they go eat, they get a big plate of food and don't eat it all. There's so many people in the world who don't have half of what we have."
Seven years after he arrived on U.S. soil, Alfaro's brother Damian arrived in America on his own. It would be another 12 years before Alfaro saw his parents again, in 2006, when he brought them to live in the U.S.
"When I came to the states, I had nothing," Alfaro said. "Now, just to open my fridge and have food. I am thankful. Hey, I got everything that I can think of."
"I have a job. I have my own house, my family. I have a life."