Third time's a charm for car-boaters

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After two failed attempts in converted autos, a Cuban family can stay in the States

After two failed attempts in converted autos, a Cuban family can stay in the States

Twice they tried to flee Cuba in a car converted to a boat, and twice they wound up back on the island. But this time Rafael Diaz Rey and his family would get to stay in the United States.

Diaz Rey, his wife, two children and 10 other Cubans were motoring across the Straits of Florida in a blue 1948 Mercury station wagon taxi when the Coast Guard stopped them 14 miles from Key West June 7.

Ordinarily they all would have been repatriated to Cuba under the “wet-foot-dry-foot” policy, which lets people fleeing Cuba by boat stay in this country if they reach a U.S. beach. If the Coast Guard stops their boat or raft — or “car” — at sea, the migrants are ferried back to Cuba unless they can show they are targets of political repression.

But this was no typical case, says Luis Fernandez, a Miami attorney who helped the family. Diaz Rey; his wife, Nivia Valdes Galves; his 16-year-old stepson, Pablo Alfonso Valdes; and 10-year-old son, David Diaz Valdes, had received permission from the United States to come here. (The U.S. Interests Section in Cuba runs a lottery to pick from among thousands of Cuban applicants the names of those who can immigrate.)

Diaz Rey and his family won the lottery, but the Cuban government wouldn’t allow his wife to leave because she is a medical doctor, and it wouldn’t let her son go because he is military-service age, says Fernandez. Issued in June 2004, permission for the family to enter the United States was good for just a year and due to expire in June.

“They were in a desperate situation,” Fernandez says.

So they decided to sneak out of Cuba — again — on a type of improvised vessel that Diaz Rey is very familiar with. A mechanic, he had become an expert in converting cars to boats, says his cousin, Elena Diaz, a Miami resident. In 1994 he and his family set off from Cuba in a 1947 Buick during the big exodus of rafters. Their “boat” sprang a leak 13 miles off Cuba, forcing them to turn around. Then it exploded, injuring his wife, and the Cuban Coast Guard rescued them, Diaz says. In February 2004 the family came across again, in a converted 1959 Buick. This time the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted them 10 miles off Marathon, Fla., and took them back to Cuba.

Diaz says on this attempt her cousin called her by cell phone as he motored away from the Cuban coast in his Mercury station wagon, so she was expecting him. After the Coast Guard stopped the vessel off Key West, Fernandez and a team of attorneys sprung into action to try to win the Diaz Rey family entry into the United States. The U.S. Attorney in Miami agreed to let them stay after reviewing their immigration documents. The other 10 Cubans had to return home.

Fernandez says a sportfishing boat happened upon the Mercury shortly before the Coast Guard intercepted it, and offered to ferry the fleeing Cubans ashore. So close and confident that now they were home free, the group said, “This car can make it,” and declined the ride, Fernandez says. Had they accepted and reached shore, they all would have been able to stay. “They all would have made it,” Fernandez says.