Carles Bosch and Josep Maria Domenech are Spanish documentarians who followed a group of balseros in their flight from Cuba in 1994. During the Special Period, after Soviet economic aid disappeared when that country collapsed in 1991, Cuba was in horrible shape. Thousands sought to leave for the U.S. But only a few thousand a year can get visas. So thousands of others put together makeshift rafts and sought to float to Florida. This was incredibly dangerous. Many died of thirst, drowning, sharks, not to mention the rafts were largely not really seaworthy. The filmmakers interview several people ready to make the trip. Some couples, some people leaving families behind, theoretically maybe to bring them later.
This is a story worth telling of course, but it’s also a story we know. Poverty at home, dangerous trip, hope for freedom. The rafters are picked up by the Coast Guard after Clinton put a stop to the migration. They are sent to Guantanamo. Eventually, they are admitted to the U.S. This is where the documentary gets more compelling. They are scattered to the winds. Some stay in Miami, others end up in New York City or Nebraska. U.S. government policy has been to not have refugees concentrate in a few cities for some time. They were working with the Catholic Church to find the people support. They are mostly excited to be in their new homes with hope for the future.
5 years later, the filmmakers revisited everyone. And their stories are basically the story of the American working class, which is what they now are. Some are doing pretty well for themselves, if working at Home Depot is doing well. Some have American friends, some are in Cuban communities. Some are employed, others are struggling. One guy got in with gangs in the Bronx and totally abandoned his family in Cuba, not contacting them for years. One was hit by a car and has a lame leg. He converted to a pretty extreme-looking Pentecostal or similar evangelical church (speaking in tongues and such) and left his uncle in Miami for a church in San Antonio without telling anyone, leading to a story on Univision to find him.
Some of the couples are still together, others are not. One couple moved to Connecticut. He worked all the time and she was at home not working. She fell in love with another Cuban refugee. They divorced. He stayed in Connecticut where he fell in with some good ol’boys (New England variety) and seems pretty happy. She’s a mess. They moved to Phoenix and worked in a slaughterhouse for awhile before bailing on that and moving to Albuquerque where she ended up selling drugs. The film closes with her sister getting an actual visa to move to the U.S. She goes to Albuquerque to be with her sister (once she finds out she is even there, which took time). And you can see her horror at what the drug-dealing sister has become. Powerful stuff.