Cuban Rafts on Florida Shores: Immigrants Dare to Defy Nature and Policy

On a recent trip to the eastern shore of Florida, I happened upon the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, a Light Station and Museum south of Daytona Beach. In 2004, the 1933 rotating third order Fresnel lens was restored and reinstalled in the lighthouse tower. That process allowed the lighthouse to return to its function as a private aid to navigation at the beginning of the Halifax River along the intercoastal waterway.

Now the tower is illuminated by a five concentric wick kerosene lantern whose light can be seen up to 18 miles out to sea. Among the well-maintained exhibits at Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse is one I just didn’t expect: A Cuban Raft Exhibit.

Cuban rafts

Transportation Borne Out of Necessity

It is not unusual for Cuban refugee rafts to come ashore near the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, according to information available at the museum. Rafts in their collection date from 1989 to present. These fragile vessels are built with whatever materials are available to the refugees who use them to cross more than the 100 miles of open seas between Cuba to the Florida Keys and north. Several are now on permanent exhibit at the Lighthouse Museum.

To say that the Florida Straits that these refugees must cross is treacherous is the proverbial understatement. Any boat, no matter the age or condition, toughs it out across those 90 miles. The Gulf Stream surges, the headstrong Florida current beckons, and the wind is heavy over the swells. Oh, yeah: and don’t forget about the sharks.

In fiscal year 2016, more than 56,000 Cubans entered the U.S. either by sea or land across the Mexican border. According to numbers compiled by the Pew Research Center, that was more than double the number that arrived in fiscal year 2014. U.S. Coast Guard crews were interdicting between 15 and 20 migrants at sea in the Florida Straits daily during that time frame, said Capt. Jeffrey Janszen, commander of Coast Guard Sector Key West, although the number has since dropped off. “We interdicted appropriately 25 Cuban migrants since the policy change,” he said, referring to President Barack Obama’s January 12 order that lifted what came to be known as the “wet foot, dry foot policy.”

Since the early 1960s, rickety sea craft built from scraps of inner tubes, wood, and rope have symbolized the desperation of many Cuban people who have sought to cross the Florida Straits to the United States to seek a better life. The 1994 rafter crisis, when more than 30,000 Cuban balseros fled the island on similar vessels to those at the Ponce Lighthouse Museum, allowed Cubans who reached U.S. soil to stay. Those intercepted at sea were sent back. In 2006, Rear Admiral Harvey Johnson told the Miami Herald that the Coast Guard often sunk Cuban rafts after boarding them because probable public display in a museum exhibit or otherwise would have been “an encouragement for people in Cuba to think they need to make it to the United States.”

Now, while not only a dangerous journey, Cubans who succeed in their hazardous journey to the Florida and other U.S. shores are no longer guaranteed residency upon landing. Like other migrants who arrive illegally, they will be repatriated.

Cuban Rafts as a Living Reminder of a Lost U.S. Promise to Immigrants

Whether lost at sea or abandoned on shore, some of these Cuban rafts have survived. They have been salvaged for nostalgia, publicly displayed as part of the region’s history, and serve as a reminder of the social crisis of Cuban and other migration now in the U.S.

Cuban rafts

One of the Cuban rafts on display at the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse Museum was a handmade wooden rectangle with planks nailed horizontally and a covered platform, now deteriorated, upon which passengers sat. A single mast and sail would’ve powered the vessel across choppy seas and through winds gusts that, on a typical March day, can reach 18 or more mph.

Cuban raftsAnother raft had the caption, “Viva tu vida, No la mia. Barco #1.” (Live your life, not mine.) A jumble of rebar and canvas enclosed its passengers. Certainly no more than 20 feet in length, the vessel seemed ill-equipped for a voyage on the Halifax River, never mind the one it took to cross the Florida Straits.

Cuban raftsSome of the Cuban rafts on display were little more than thick rectangles of styrofoam. “Rafts are the most moving reality about the Cuban diaspora,” said Ileana Fuentes, director of the new American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora in Miami, home to several paintings by artist Luis Cruz Azaceta that capture the Cuban rafter exodus. She calls the raft “a symbol of the relentless will of Cubans to live in freedom: to risk life and family at sea, surrounded by hungry sharks, to make it to the land of liberty.” Last year, the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West unveiled a 21-foot handmade vessel named the Mariana that was crafted from steel drums and a truck engine.

Rustic pontoon boats. Makeshift watercraft. Floating pillows of styrofoam. Empty oil drums made of steel and lashed side-to-side to form pontoons. Fabricated rudders.

The ingenuity of these Cuban raft boat builders cannot be argued.

But the current U.S. policies towards immigrants can and should be discussed as part of a larger conversation about our national heritage and sociocultural understandings of our global world. Whatever the motivation — economic, political, religious, or familial — the plight of migrants like the Cuban Rafters cannot be minimized, dismissed, or denied. If you have more questions, read what Emma Lazarus wrote and which is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. It’s who we’re supposed to be as a nation.

Sources:, SunSentinel, Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse

Photos: Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn grew up in Stafford Springs, CT, home of the half-mile tar racetrack. She's an avid Formula One fan (this year's trip to the Monza race was memorable). With a Ph.D. from URI, she draws upon digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+