He took to the open seas on a flimsy raft, only to be caught and sent to Guantanamo Bay.’ After a successful escape to Panama, Jorge Alvarez came to the United States. His wife finally made it to the states. Today, he has new hopes. President Obama has opened the door for expatriates to visit family in Cuba again. This is his story of survival and endless optimism.
He spent five days rowing through the Straits of Florida, two months at Guantanamo and some time’ later he found employment at the University of Tampa along with a home.
Jorge Alvarez was born in 1944 in Victoria de las Tunas, Cuba.’ His pleasant demeanor and genuine smile are enough to have anyone convinced that he has lived a quiet life of relative ease. But, given the chance, all one needs to do is prompt him, and they’ll end up hearing a daring account about the realization of a dream.
‘I am a balsero,’ admits Alvarez, referring to the Cuban refugees who bravely risk their lives to flee from their country, usually on makeshift, flimsy rafts called ‘balsas.’
Alvarez’s own story as a ‘balsero’ started in 1995 in Havana under a communist regime that has dominated the island for over half a century.
Alvarez, one of his sisters and nine friends rowed their way to freedom for five days in a poorly constructed boat made from seven inflated tractor tire inner-tubes.
‘We saw many people on the sea who asked for our help, but we could not help them because the load was too much,’ said Alvarez, looking crestfallen as he spoke of the other refugee rafts he saw 14 years ago. ‘There were children without adults. It was the worst thing in the world.’
Along his way to freedom, Alvarez’s tiny vessel was hit by a fierce nighttime storm that drenched everyone – and everything on board – for the remainder of the journey. Soon after the rain stopped, the sea and sweltering’ ocean heat induced madness in some of those with him.With each hour that went by, the group got a little closer to freedom.
But the ride and the dream came to a sudden end just off the Florida Keys. The Coast Guard apprehended the group and sent everyone aboard back to Cuba, bound for Guantanamo Bay to be dealt with.
In 1995, just like today, Guantanamo Bay was an active U.S. military base. However, it would be many years later until it would connote detainees from the ‘War on Terror.’
‘Two months in Guantanamo,’ was the length of his time there said Alvarez. He and his companions lived the entire time in a tent provided by U.S. officials.
They were not alone, living amongst many others Cubans, as well as Haitians, who were also intercepted trying to immigrate to the U.S.
‘There were 30 or so thousand people living there,’ he said.
The setback seemed nearly insurmountable. But it wasn’t too long before they were traveling again.
During this period, many of the Cubans in Guantanamo escaped repatriation by being taken to Panama.
Alvarez, his sister and many other Cubans were among them. A few months later, because of humanitarian reasons, the pair was allowed to come to Miami.
Once there, one of their brothers, who already lived in Florida, drove Alvarez to Tampa where he sought work.
In his lifetime, Alvarez has worked in construction, dry-cleaning and as a longshoreman. He was first hired by the University of Tampa to paint, but he decided to stay, later doing landscaping and then janitorial services, which is what he does today.
Despite his turbulent past’mdash;or perhaps because of it–the hard-working Alvarez has a pastime that he loves more than anything else: ‘Visiting my family,’ he said. ‘When I’m not working, in my leisure time I visit my family.’
It wasn’t until nine years after Alvarez’s arrival in the U.S. that his wife was allowed to fly from Cuba to be reunited with him. They’ve been together 40 years.
His sister now lives in Miami and he has 11 other family members living in the U.S., almost all of whom live in Florida. A small remainder still resides in Cuba.
After Obama introduced plans to ease travel restrictions to Cuba, Alvarez and other Cuban-Americans will find it less difficult to return to the island of their ancestry.
He plans to visit this summer and looked delighted, though not without a slight air of reminiscent sadness.
‘I am content,’ he said. ‘They [Cuban-Americans] can see their friends, they can see their families. Before, if family was sick, we couldn’t see them. My daughter died in Cuba after an operation, and I couldn’t see her.’
But his pleasure isn’t without the realization that America’s long-standing trade embargo, referred to on the island as the ‘bloqueo’ is far from over.
‘I am happy here, but I dream that Cuba will be free and that there will be more opportunity and that they will get rid of the bloqueo,’ Alvarez said. ‘This is what I wish for the future of my country.’