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Miami-Dade





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Posted on Wed, Feb. 04, 2004

IMMIGRATION

Cubans trade in pickup for Buick on trip to U.S.


Two Cubans who tried to make it to the U.S. in a Chevy pickup try to make the voyage again -- in a Buick. The fate of 11 on board is unknown.



tfigueras@herald.com

Two Cuban men, both of them desperate fathers and childhood friends, plotted to make a vintage vehicle seaworthy and took to the Florida Straits this week, relatives said.

Again.

Tuesday, a floating Eisenhower-era automobile spotted chugging toward U.S. soil carried Marciel Basanta López and Luis Gras Rodríguez, relatives said -- two of the men whose ill-fated attempt to escape Cuba aboard a Chevy pickup in July garnered international headlines and a swift repatriation to the communist island.

Seven months later, the men -- plus nine others, including their wives and children -- slipped once more from the shores of their homeland in hopes of freedom, said Basanta's cousin, Kiriat López, who lives in Lake Worth.

This time, they drove a Buick.

''My cousin isn't crazy. He wants to be free,'' said López, who watched in disbelief as his cousin's face once again flashed across the television during the evening news. ``That's how crazy he is.''

In the Havana neighborhood of San Miguel de Padrón, Gras' sister Valentina awaited news of her brother and his companions.

''They are very brave,'' Valentina Gras said. ``When you are so sure of what you have to do you cannot be afraid.''

Relatives said they knew the men were planning a second escape attempt. Basanta's wife, Mirlena, told relatives the family would be leaving this week -- but didn't say how.

López called Cuba from Lake Worth on Tuesday.

''Marciel's sister said it was them, and that they had left in a car,'' said López, who said the six adults and five children left the island in a 1959 Buick around 8 p.m. Monday. ``They've been waiting the past two weeks for good weather.''

The U.S. Coast Guard would not confirm the status of the floating car or the origin of photos broadcast Tuesday on television showing the vehicle chugging through the waves.

''U.S. policy does not allow us to comment on ongoing migrant cases until disposition is resolved,'' said Petty Officer Carlene Drummond, a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard's Seventh District Command.

According to a source familiar with Coast Guard communications, the tail-finned car -- its hood snugly wrapped in what appeared to be a boat prow -- was spotted northwest of Havana moving at about five or six knots per hour.

When the Cubans realized they had been spotted, they climbed down from the rooftop, into the interior, and rolled the windows shut.

By 6 p.m. Tuesday, the car was nearly halfway to Key West. It was unclear whether the car's passengers had been intercepted by Coast Guard officers, or their automotive exploit had continued past nightfall.

Under U.S. immigration policy, Cubans who make it to U.S. soil are generally allowed to stay, while those who are interdicted at sea are usually sent back.

Told that the sea-faring Cubans had reportedly locked themselves in the car, López exclaimed: ``Good!''

''The last time, they were tricked into giving up,'' he said. ``This time, they have experience. They don't plan to go anywhere. Except here.''

Basanta, a one-time tae kwan do champion, and his friends conspired for months to outfit Gras' battered Chevy pickup, which chugged along on a bed of floating steel drums powered by makeshift propellers.

After it was intercepted, the Coast Guard sank the Chevy in a hail of machine-gun fire.

Basanta told the Herald last year that the 12 Cubans aboard the 1951 Chevy were misled by a Spanish-speaking Coast Guard officer after the truck was spotted about 40 miles off of Key West on July 16.

''He said we could do things the easy way or the hard way,'' Basanta told the Herald in July, days after he was returned to Cuba. The presence of Gras' toddler son convinced the Cubans to board the Coast Guard willingly - with the understanding, Basanta said, that the Chevy would be returned to Cuba with them.

Instead, the Chevy went down in a hail of machine-gun fire. Coast Guard officials at the time said the truck was unseaworthy.

A month later, Rear Adm. Harvey Johnson, the Coast Guard's District Commander, cited another reason, saying they feared the truck would become a ''monument'' inspiring similarly risky ventures.

But the image of the battered flatbed, bright-green against a blue sea, had already become a symbol to both Cubans on the island and in exile.

Back in Cuba, Basanta's bid for political asylum in the United States was rejected, as were the bids of eight of the others.

Gras' application is still being processed, but López said he had grown frustrated with the wait.

''Their houses have been searched by Cuban security. Marciel's driver's license was taken away from him,'' López said. ``They are desperate, desperate men.''


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