days before, Rafael had confided to his younger brother that he and his
family planned to flee the country and asked him to come. Dagoberto refused.
He had had other opportunities to defect-when two other brothers had done
so-but leaving was not for him. He lacked the ambition and energy of his
siblings, and Cuba's socialism provided for his basic needs whether he
worked or not. To prove his point, he boasted of having had laparoscopic
surgery on his knee. "How much would that cost in the U.S.?" he asked
knowingly. For days, the two argued and bickered. At times, Rafael would
change his mind and say he wouldn't go, but after a pep talk from his
son, he would recommit to the trip. On and off it went, even through their
farewell dinner of roast pork in their cramped apartment, with Juan Gabriel
crooning on the tape deck. Dagoberto had swung by around 9:30 in the evening.
"The group was all gathered there," he would later recall. "I saw the
couple there with her daughter. She was asking if the sea was rough. I
asked her: 'You're going with that little girl?' And she told me yes.
I told her: 'Here the waves are a meter high but out there they are four
or five times more, up to ten meters high.' "
Dagoberto would not give up. He could not bear to lose Rafael, who had
raised him like a son after their father had died when Dagoberto was still
a teenager. "I was crying because when someone goes over there you always
think the worst. My brother ate his dinner, then he left his place alone.
I thought this was my last opportunity to talk to him again. I saw that
he went for the brush that is all along the shore and I followed him.
And when I got there I saw the boat."
Circling the narrow homemade boat, Dagoberto could see that parts of it
were rusty and that holes in its bottom had been patched with packing
materials. "I can't believe you're leaving on this piece of shit," Dagoberto
bellowed to his brother. "This is not a boat. It's garbage! You're crazy."
But, Rafael had made up his mind and didn't want to hear any more from
him. "We're leaving on it," he said, his voice pitched with anger, "and
if you're not coming with us, get out of here and leave me alone!"
There was nothing more to say or do. Angry and wounded, Dagoberto shuffled
back to the main road, then made his way home. "I didn't say goodbye to
him. I left him there alone maybe 10:30 that night," Dagoberto mumbled.
"I left and I never saw him again."
6:00 a.m. on Thanksgiving day, Juan Ruiz and his friend Reniel Carmenate
were coming ashore after an evening of fishing off Miami's Key Biscayne.
Ruiz said that as they docked they could make out the forms of two people
huddling and shivering on the shore by the water's edge. Nearby was an
oversized Russian-made black truck tire. "They were in really bad, bad
condition," said Ruiz. "Their skin was a sickly purple color, all ripply
with wrinkles and covered in blisters. I wanted to help them take their
clothes off because the material was welded into their skin but I was
afraid that their skin would tear. The man was in the worse shape, almost
going in and out of consciousness. They kept asking for water but I knew
from experience that water could really hurt them unless it was given
to them through an IV drip. We called the police and I ran to my truck
and got some dry clothes."
The man was almost delirious; the woman's bones had decalcified from days
of ocean immersion. Their bodies were latticed with the bite marks of
fish. "The lady was the one who spoke and told us what had happened,"
said Ruiz. "She said they left Cuba with twelve others but that everyone
had drowned-including a little boy." The young couple were the fleeing
lovers-thirty-three-year-old Nivaldo Fernández and his twenty-two-year-old
girlfriend, Arianne Horta.
Thirty miles farther north off of Fort Lauderdale, Sam Ciancio was out
in his cabin cruiser. With him was his cousin Donato Dalrymple, a housecleaner,
out for the first time on his cousin's boat. Ciancio spied a large black
inner tube bobbing in the Atlantic and thought he saw the outlines of
a large doll inside the tire. But as they steered closer to the tire,
they saw it was not a doll but rather a small child tied to the inner
tube. Ciancio dove into the water and brought the boy aboard. The trembling
child was five-year-old Elián González, who, in a matter of hours, would
become the poster boy for both sides of America's forty-year-old Cold
War with Cuba.
The three were the sole survivors of the group that had left Cárdenas
in the wee hours of November 22. Elián's mother, Elisa, and her boyfriend,
Rafa Munero, were among the eleven who had drowned-along with his brother,
mother, and father. Not far from Elián's inner tube, the body of sixty-one-year-old
Mérida Loreto Barrios, the matriarch of the Rodríguez clan, tethered to
the end of a long rope, was found floating over the surface of the waves
like bait. Stuffed in her undergarments was $210 in twenty- and ten-dollar
bills. She had been the last of her family to die-after witnessing the
drowning of her two sons, her husband and her daughter-in-law. Some of
the bodies were found a hundred miles away from each other-swept by the
driving currents of the Gulf Stream to Key West and as far north as Fort
But the bodies of Elisa and her lover, his younger brother and Mérida's
husband were never found. They would join the thousands of others, failed
seekers of a better life, in that immense aquatic graveyard-the Florida
Seeking to put faces on those who died, I went to Cárdenas, Havana and
Miami several times over the next two years. There were scores of pieces
to find, identify and jiggle into the puzzle. There were two extended
families, eleven dead, two adult survivors and two five-year-old children
who would become estranged from their grieving parents. But clinging to
the bare facts were conflicting stories to reconcile, and personal ambitions
and political agendas to sort out amidst a surfeit of grief, rage and
In Key Biscayne's Crandon Park Marina, the shipwreck survivors Nivaldo
and Arianne, wrapped and shivering in blankets, told police detectives
the saga of their deadly journey. Then they were whisked away to Jackson
Memorial Hospital and later to Arianne's aunt in Hialeah-where they shut
themselves in, rarely speaking about their ordeal. I first met Arianne
and Nivaldo in early February 2000 at her aunt's small home on a torn
up and potholed street in Hialeah, the working-class Cuban community that
borders Miami. The strains of their ordeal and their new lives were painfully
evident. At the time, they had no money, no jobs, no clothes and did not
Arianne is a small, dark-haired beauty with a sultry beauty mark on her
chin. Outwardly, she seemed to have emerged from her ordeal entirely unscathed,
her gaze riveted on the present and the future. Phoenix-like, she promptly
enrolled in an English school in a Hialeah shopping mall, attending class
every night from six to nine and charting out her new life. Soon after
her miraculous rescue, she made an appointment at the local peluquería
in Hialeah and had dagger-length acrylic nails applied to her fingertips.
At our first meeting, Nivaldo seemed particularly stressed-his legs bobbing
nervously, his face drawn and wounded. A light-skinned black man with
translucent hazel eyes, he was still unable to sleep. Every evening, he
said, he awoke over and over again-revisiting the shipwreck and the days
they spent drifting in the water. "When we remember everything that happened,
we feel it deeply," he said softly, "having seen so many people drown."
Nivaldo was besotted with Arianne, his eyes rarely leaving her. Although
he too would like to learn English, he said that one of them had to sacrifice
and he was willing to do so. And for the love of Arianne, he was willing
to make many sacrifices. It was Nivaldo who had paid the entire fee for
the two. He had left behind a wife, a good job and a new house in Cárdenas.
He rattled off the fine appliances he had in his home on Calle San José.
"I lived a lot better in Cuba," he told me, "than I'm living here now."
And while he thinks he would like Chicago, where his mother and other
relatives live, he has contented himself in Miami because Arianne loves
After surviving a perilous shipwreck and excruciating ordeal in the raging
Atlantic, Nivaldo found himself in a home feeling unwelcome. Indeed, when
I spoke with her weeks later, Arianne's aunt couldn't have been more candid
about her feelings. Repeatedly tapping her forearm with two fingers-Cuban
for signifying that someone is black-she found my eyes and sighed. Racial
prejudice is not uncommon in Miami's exile community, which is roughly
95 percent white. Local talk radio speculated that had Elián González
been black-as are 65 to 70 percent of Cubans on the island-"he would have
been tossed back into the sea." A close friend of the couple said that
Arianne's aunt was uncomfortable with Nivaldo in her home. "Supposedly
one room is for them but the aunt doesn't want Nivaldo sleeping with Arianne.
So he has to sleep in the living room." Pushing back her red-blond hair,
the aunt told me that Nivaldo's arrival had been difficult for her. "For
us, it is a very big thing. He is the first black person in our family.
We grew up in a time when parents brought us up right. We accept him,"
she said with another, deeper sigh, "because he is a good, hardworking
man. What can we do?"
Sitting in a Hialeah coffee shop where he was unable to eat or drink anything,
Nivaldo said that talking about his ordeal only seemed to make it worse.
The voyage was ill fated from the beginning, he said. "The most difficult
thing was the trip. It was four days long but we were in the water for
three days." By the time the group left shore it was almost 2:30 in the
morning of November 21. Under the shield of darkness on a moonless night,
they hoped to evade detection from the Cuban Coast Guard. There were two
five-year-olds in tow when they left: Arianne's beautiful, curly-haired
daughter, Estefany, named after Princess Stephanie of Monaco, and Elián,
Elisa's son. While Estefany cried and cowered fearfully from the huge,
dark waves, Elián delighted in the adventure. He teased passengers who
he said were eating too many of their crackers. Everyone giggled at his
precocity; his mother glowed.
The mood on the boat darkened abruptly less than two hours after they
took off, when the motor clacked and sputtered, then died. "We could still
see land," recalled Nivaldo. Using oars, they paddled back to the nearest
key off Cárdenas. There they hid out for fourteen hours until sunset,
then paddled back to Cárdenas at 6:00 p.m.
Although it was clearly a poor omen, Nivaldo said no one was deterred
from going except Arianne, who was having second thoughts about bringing
Estefany, who was crying and fretting. Elisa had unwavering confidence
in Rafa-after all, he had made the trip twice before, with even less of
a boat than they had. And she could not bear to be parted from Elián.
While the men repaired the engine, Arianne walked her daughter back to
her mother's home on Calle Vives and returned to the boat alone. It was
a fateful, prescient decision that she is certain saved their lives. Had
they struggled to save or calm her daughter as the others had done for
each other, they too would have drowned.
Rafa repaired the boat by inserting "a piece of scrap metal in the engine
from another part of the boat," according to Nivaldo. "They fixed the
engine, it was fine, we left, everything was perfect." Having lost a full
day, they finally motored off at 3:00 a.m. on November 22, a Monday. Arianne
said she would never forget the date, because it happened to be her twenty-second
birthday "and I spent it in the water." In lieu of life jackets, they
took along three gomas-the large black inner tubes used on Russian-made
trucks. The plan was to have seven, but Rafa decided that they could make
do with three.
Excerpted from Cuba Confidential by Ann Louise BardachCopyright
2002 by Ann Louise Bardach. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a
division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt
may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the
number one Cuba reporter, PEN awardwinning investigative journalist
Ann Louise Bardach, comes the big book on Cuba weve all been waiting
for. An incisive and spirited portrait of the twentieth centurys
wiliest political survivor and his fiefdom, Cuba Confidential is
the gripping story of the shattered families and warring personalities
that lie at the heart of the forty-three-year standoff between Miami and
many Americans for her cover stories and media appearances, Ann Louise
Bardach has been covering Cuba for a decade. Shes talked to the
crooks, spooks and politicians who have made history, and to their hired
assassins and confidants. Based on exclusive interviews with Fidel Castro,
his sister Juanita, his former brother-in-law Rafael Díaz-Balart,
the family of Elián González, the friends and family of
the legendary American fugitive Robert Vesco, the intrepid terrorist Luis
Posada Carriles, and the inner circles of Jeb Bush and the late exile
leader Jorge Mas Canosa, Cuba Confidential exposes the hardball
take-no-prisoners tactics of the Cuban exile leadership, and its manipulation
and exploitation by ten American presidents.
in on Fidel Castro and his cronies, taking us closer than weve ever
beenand on the militant exiles who have devoted their lives, with
CIA connivance, to trying to eliminate him. From Calle Ocho to Juan Miguel
Gonzálezs kitchen table in Cárdenas, from Guantánamo
Bay to Union City to Washington, D.C., Ann Louise Bardach serves up an
unforgettable portrait of Cuba and its exiles.
a journalism professor and a PEN awardwinning investigative journalist.
She is a contributing editor to Talk magazine and has written extensively
about Cuba for Vanity Fair, Conde Nast Traveler, the New
Republic, the Washington Post, The New York Times, and
other publications. She has been covering Cuba for a decade.