Elian's Journey
An exclusive interview with the two adult survivors.

The Wall Street Journal, Monday, January 24, 2000

MIAMI--It's hard for people who have never lived under communism to comprehend the passions the Elian Gonzalez case has ignited in the Cuban-American community. Just as white people can't completely understand what it's like to feel the sting of racial prejudice, those of us lucky enough to have grown up in a free land can't fully fathom the meaning of totalitarianism. But the lawmakers, judges and bureaucrats who control Elian's fate have an obligation to try. By contemplating the lengths to which people will go to escape, they can at least glimpse a shadow of the horror.

Elian and his mother were traveling with 12 other people, two of whom survived. Nivaldo Fernandez, a chef in a five-star tourist restaurant who was separated from his wife, and Arianne Horta, a single full-time mom, had been dating for less than a year when they decided to leave Cuba together. They have kept a low profile until now because Ms. Horta fears for her five-year-old daughter, Estefani Erera, whom she left behind in Cuba. On Friday Ms. Horta went public with her plight at a press conference here organized by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.).

A few days earlier, I sat down with Mr. Fernandez and Ms. Horta to hear an account of their harrowing voyage. This is their story, as translated by Carlos Corredoira, Mr. Fernandez's best friend.

Fifteen Cubans from the coastal city of Cardenas boarded a 17-foot boat bound for America before dawn on Nov. 21. Along with the three survivors and Elian's mother and stepfather, the group included Ms. Horta's young daughter and two families, the Muneros and the Rodriguezes. A Rodriguez family friend was also aboard. Aside from the two children, the youngest member of the group was 17.

The trip was troubled from the start. Their outboard motor failed almost immediately, and they spent the day on a small island just off the coast trying to repair it. As Elian and Estefani played together on the island, Elian was exuberant; he kept shouting "Me voy para la Yuma!": "I'm going to the United States!" (La Yuma is a Cuban colloquialism for the U.S.) But Estefani was scared and cried much of the time.

In the evening they returned and got the motor fixed. Ms. Horta decided Estefani was not up for the trip. She faced an agonizing choice: her daughter or her freedom. She decided to leave Estefani behind with her grandmother and send for her after she settled in the U.S. She had no idea the trip would turn into an international incident.

Just before dawn the next morning, they set off again. Two hours later, Elian saved their lives. Two Cuban patrol boats pulled up, one on each side. They tried unsuccessfully to capsize the little boat by moving from side to side, making waves. Then a sailor on the larger vessel threatened to sink the boat with a water cannon.

"We have kids in here!" Mr. Fernandez shouted. "We have five or six kids!" He backed up his bluff by hoisting Elian. The sailor backed down. The patrol boats continued to follow for an hour, turning back when they reached international waters.

Things got much worse that night. The motor died. High waves tossed the boat about. Water splashed over the sides of the craft, threatening to sink it. A fuel tank tipped over. The gasoline burned a hole in one of the three large inner tubes the group had taken along in case of emergency. Seconds later, the boat capsized.

The 14 Cubans spent the night clinging to the hull. Several cruise ships passed by, but no one heard their cries for help. At dawn they tried to turn their boat over. Instead it sank. Their food was gone. They grabbed the inner tubes and held on for their lives.

As the boat sank, Ms. Horta snatched a jug of water. She told Elian's mother, Elisabeth Broton: "Only give this water to Elian." That selfless act may well have saved Elian's life.

By evening, the Cubans were dehydrated, and some started to hallucinate. The first to succumb was 17-year-old Jicary Munero, Elian's stepfather's brother. He swam away from the inner tube, shouting: "Look, there's a little island! I see lights!" His brother and one of the Rodriguez men swam after him.

Suddenly all was quiet. In the space of seconds, three men had died, and two women had become widows. Elian's stepfather's parents had also seen two sons perish. Mr. Fernandez struggled to keep their spirits up. "Let's pray together," he told them.

Hunger and hallucination killed more that night. The Rodriguezes' friend, a 25-year-old woman named Lirka, was starving. She swam away, shouting, "I want black beans and rice!" Mr. Fernandez tried to save her. She drowned just as he reached her. When he returned to the inner tube, it was empty. Elian's stepfather's parents had drowned, too. Later the widow Rodriguez started swimming and shouting, "There's light over there!" Her brother-in-law tried to save her. Both drowned quickly.

The group had dwindled to six: Mr. Fernandez, Ms. Horta, Elian, his mother, and the parents of the two dead Rodriguez men. Mr. Fernandez and Ms. Horta, exhausted, fell asleep clinging to their inner tube. They awoke to find that the elder Rodriguezes had drowned overnight.

All the struggle and death had worn Elian's mother down. "I want to die," she said. "All I want is for my son to live. If there's one here who has to die, it's me, not him." Elian was begging for milk; his mother had given him her sweater to protect him from the chilly waters.

Mr. Fernandez and Ms. Horta dozed off again. Hours later they were awakened by sharks nipping at their legs. (Both showed me their scars: Mr. Fernandez has several dozen small tooth marks on his ankles; Ms. Horta has three larger wounds on her thighs.)

They were alone. The rope that held the inner tubes together had come loose as they slept. Mr. Fernandez, who had tried to lift the others' spirits, found himself losing hope. "I'm tired," he told Ms. Horta. "I can't make it. I want to die."

As night fell, the couple saw lights in the distance. They tried swimming toward shore, but the current was against them. Again they slept.

They awoke at dawn on Thanksgiving Day. Closer to shore, they began swimming toward land. They arrived in a Key Biscayne, Fla., yacht harbor. They had made it.

Exhausted and dehydrated, they collapsed. Later Mr. Fernandez, lying in bed in a Miami hospital, told police there might be other survivors. A cop showed him a photo: "Did this little kid come with you?"

"Yes. Is he alive?" Elian had made it too.

After leaving the hospital, Mr. Fernandez and Ms. Horta went straight to the immigration office and began the process of becoming Americans. Their new lives are a classic immigrant struggle. Ms. Horta is going to school to learn English. Mr. Fernandez, the erstwhile five-star chef, is looking for work; last week he had an interview for a job washing cars at an auto dealership.

Nivaldo Fernandez is full of faith in his new country. "I was born on July 3, 1967," he says. "I was born again on Nov. 25, 1999, because that's when I came to the land of liberty." Would he do it again if he knew how harrowing the journey would be? "Yes. Even if I died in the middle of the sea, I would have died with dignity, trying to come to this country."

Arianne Horta longs to be reunited with Estefani, her five-year-old daughter. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, the selfsame agency that is demanding Elian's immediate deportation in the name of family reunification, tells Ms. Horta it can't do anything about her little girl until Ms. Horta attains residency status, which won't happen until next year. In contrast to Elian's father, last seen ranting on ABC's "Nightline" about his desire to assassinate U.S. politicians, Ms. Horta maintains a quiet dignity. "I cry a lot," she says.

This week Congress will take up legislation to declare Elian Gonzalez a U.S. citizen. It should extend the same privilege to Estefani Erera. There's no guarantee that Fidel Castro would allow her to emigrate, but such an action would remove the obstacle on this side of the Florida Straits. Making Estefani an American would be a fitting tribute to her mother's heroism--and to the memories of the 11 who didn't make it.

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