I sat on the bow of the 50-year-old Coast Guard cutter just south of Key West. The sun beat down on the blue tarp overhead, and the thick humid air hadn’t stirred for days. I had soaked through my undershirt before we had finished serving the morning meal of rice and beans, and now that my four-hour security watch was almost complete, my faded blue coveralls were just as wet. My shipmates and I had only been doing these “migrant ops” for three weeks, but I was over it. No matter what we did, the river of humanity surged north.
As I watched the forty Cubans sprawled around the windlass and anchor chains and under the 25-millimeter gun mount, I sensed that they were over it too.
After five days together, I could recognize almost all of their faces. Leaning against the white gunwale was the muscular young man who always gave his daily rations to his petite wife. A few feet away, snoring against a fire hose, was the blind old man who suffered from a speech impediment, his words coming out in high-pitched squeaks. Beyond him, by the jackstaff from which the wind pennant hung limp, lay the bald gentleman who had happily explained how he was done with the Florida Straits. Next time, he would cross the Yucatan Pass and travel overland across Mexico.
This was 2015, back when Cubans were setting sail every day for the United States on their ingeniously designed yet barely seaworthy “chugs.” If they evaded the Coast Guard and survived the journey, they wouldn’t need to live in the shadows as illegal immigrants, but instead could turn themselves in to law enforcement and become legal residents. This special treatment was known as “Wet Foot, Dry Foot.”
The interdiction process was as unchanging as the tropical climate. The Cuban Border Guard would report that a “chug” had departed, and an agile Coast Guard patrol boat would disembark the migrants, sometimes by force. After pouring gasoline on the “chug” and setting it ablaze, they would bring the migrants to us, the “holding platform.” We would check their identification cards against their sunburned faces and give them a white Tyvek suit, sandals, a towel, and a bar of soap. We would then escort them to the bow, a triangular space the size of a small backyard. A Protective Screening Officer would conduct an interview, and barring any manifestations of fear of return to Cuba, he or she would recommend repatriation. Once immigration authorities in Washington signed off, the migrants would be returned to Cuba by the same patrol boats that had found them. The whole process could last a week.
Some of the repatriated migrants would give up on their yanqui dream after such an ordeal, but many would try again. The guy who was planning on crossing the Yucatan was on his seventh trip.
Leaning against the white gunwale was the muscular young man who always gave his daily rations to his petite wife. A few feet away, snoring against a fire hose, was the blind old man who suffered from a speech impediment, his words coming out in high-pitched squeaks.
The first thing I noticed when we arrived in the Florida Straits was that every aspect of “migrant ops” happened slowly, deliberately. Even our aging cutter groaned back and forth south of the Key West sea buoy on only one engine. With nowhere to go, there was no reason to waste fuel.
Meals could occupy the better part of a four-hour watch. We had to account for every plastic spoon, lest a desperate migrant sharpen one into a shiv. We weren’t worried about our safety, but theirs. Since achieving “Dry Foot” was only one MEDEVAC flight away, migrants would fake seizures, stab themselves, or swallow steel hardware.
As I sat hunched over on the steel mooring bit and watched the migrants snooze, I thought about the mini-riot we had quelled with a different group of Cubans who were dissatisfied with the frequency and quality of the meals we served. When the alarm had sounded, I rushed out of the wardroom, my plate still on the varnished wood table, to find rice and beans flying through the air. Over by the gun mount, my best friend had his knee jammed into a migrant’s back as he applied flex cuffs. It was a miserable evening for everybody involved.
I checked my watch. Still half an hour to relief. A middle-aged woman rose from her blanket, her hair disheveled, and shuffled over to the makeshift toilet. Since we were going too slow to generate any “steel wind,” the foul odors that emanated from behind the limp privacy curtain lingered in the air above us. If day five aboard became day six, we might have another riot.
Once my watch finally ended, I retreated to my stateroom. Standing under the showerhead, the cold water running down my face, I had an idea. I sat down at my desk with a towel around my waist and opened the encyclopedic “Counter-Drug/Alien Migration Interdiction Operations Manual.” I skimmed through the table of contents until I found it. There, in black and white bureaucratic font, were the various forms of “entertainment” available to compliant migrants. Music was one of them.
One thing the migrants and I had in common was that we both found ourselves aboard that piece of floating steel because of Cuba. Their connection went without saying, but for me, it came from having taken a trip to the island in high school. The friendships I made and the lush mountains and haunting cities that I saw opened my eyes to the fact that my America was only one small part of the Americas. When I decided to join the military, I chose the Coast Guard because it was the service most involved in the Western Hemisphere.
I thought about that high school trip as I dug through the metal drawers of my desk, careful not to wake my roommate, who was preparing for a long night in the engine room. There it was: my iPod, which I hadn’t touched since leaving homeport on a crisp Maine morning a month earlier. I scrolled through the artists until I found Buena Fe. I remembered watching a music video for their song “Nacimos Ángeles” in the living room of my friend’s bungalow in Ciego de Ávila. I hadn’t understood the words then, but it didn’t matter. The joy in the lilting voices and rich guitar needed no translation.
A few hours later, after polishing off a sweat-inducing dinner of Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes, I changed back into my coveralls, put on my law enforcement belt with its pepper spray, baton, and handcuffs, and climbed the ladder up to the bow. With the sun still well above the hazy horizon, I walked past my usual post on the mooring bit, stepped up onto the gun mount, and sat on a rubber fender. The migrants, scattered on the deck below me, looked up. I could tell they were expecting some kind of announcement. Instead of providing an update on when they would go home, I plugged the iPod into my portable speakers and hit play. I made sure the volume was low, because I didn’t want anybody on the bridge to hear.
As the first chords of “Nacimos Ángeles” rang out, the Cubans looked at each other incredulously. Then their stone faces crumbled into smiles and they edged closer to the gun mount. I smiled, too.
We hadn’t even finished the third song from the “Corazonero” album before my boss, the Operations Officer, came striding towards me through the throng of Tyvek-suited Cubans. I had only seen him on the bow once before, and that was in the wake of the riot. Usually a man of good cheer, he had a scowl on his face.
“What in the hell is going on up here?” he asked me in an unfamiliarly angry tone. The Cubans watched. Any action was better than no action.
I turned off the music and tried to explain what I was doing, even citing the applicable chapter from the “Counter-Drug/Alien Migrant Interdiction Operations Manual.”
“I get it,” he said, his voice losing some of its edge, “But this is still the Captain’s ship. And if the Captain wants to have a concert on the bow, he’ll tell you.”
I nodded and put the iPod into my pocket. The migrants moved back to their blankets.
Later on, I asked one of the bridge watchstanders how the Operations Officer had heard us from the bridge. After all, I had been playing the music so quietly.
“Oh, we couldn’t hear any music,” he said. “We just heard the migrants singing.”
Thomas “Buddy” Bardenwerper served as a Coast Guard officer for five years, conducting humanitarian and law enforcement missions from the North Atlantic to the Caribbean Basin. He recently completed his first year at Harvard Law School and is finishing a novel about Caribbean maritime migration.