- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 26, 2003

As Fidel Castro celebrated yesterday the 50th anniversary of the start of the uprising that eventually brought him dictatorial power, something else, also about 50 years old and coming from Cuba, upstaged the apparatchiks’ fiesta. Pictures of a bright green 1951 Chevy, supped up in Cuba for seaworthiness, made many newspapers on the eve of Mr. Castro’s party. The U.S.-bound amphibious Chevy flatbed and its 12 Cuban passengers and navigators made at least 50 miles of its 90-mile voyage when it was stopped by the Coast Guard. The Cubans on board were returned to Cuba under America’s wet-foot, dry-foot policy, whereby Cubans who don’t make it to U.S. shores are repatriated to the island.

The colorful craft is largely symbolic of the grim desperation that ushered in Mr. Castro’s anniversary party. On Monday, U.S. officials repatriated 12 Cubans intercepted at sea after hijacking a government boat. Officials said they returned the Cubans only after Cuba assured them it wouldn’t execute the hijackers or imprison them for more than 10 years.

The number of Cubans attempting to make the difficult ocean crossing is rising dramatically. Since October, 1,178 Cubans attempting to reach the United States have been interdicted, while in the last fiscal year, 666 Cubans were intercepted at sea, according to the Coast Guard. And the voyage is treacherous. According to some estimates, only one out of three rafters reach freedom, and about 16,000 have died in the attempt since 1964. Those who survive the journey and are returned to Cuba face certain punishment from the state.

Mr. Castro’s bare-knuckled repression of 75 dissidents and execution of three hijackers in April has demoralized many Cubans hoping for freedom on the island. Liberty-seekers now have virtually no outlet for their voicing frustration — a situation which may backfire on the dictator.

Meanwhile, Mr. Castro’s communist policies have devastated Cuba economically. The average monthly salary is about $14. Since then, emigre Cubans have sent an estimated $600 million-$700 million to Cuba every year. Cuba owes Western countries an estimated $12.2 billion. According to a new report by the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, at least 13 percent of the population is clinically undernourished, since a month’s rations only provide for a week to 10 days of basic nutritional needs. Also, unemployment is 12 percent, and up to 30 percent of workers are displaced or underemployed.

It is little wonder, given these realities, that Cubans are increasingly willing to risk their lives and stretch their creativity in bids for freedom and opportunity. While Fidel Castro celebrates his brutal, blighting grip on the island, Cubans are launching their own rafter rebellion.

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