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Safe Passage 

The first time Mirta Ojito found Capt. Mike Howell was luck. The second time took three years of hard work.

In her new memoir Finding Manana, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mirta Ojito offers an authoritative account of the Mariel boatlift's history. "I was never interested in the idea of writing about my life only," Ojito says. "But I needed to understand this thing that changed my life, and I needed to find out who the key players had been."

Capt. Mike Howell has a soft spot for strays. The 57-year-old sailor shares his home, a 53-foot boat called the Manana that he docks near West End Park on Lake Pontchartrain, with four of them. As Howell boards the refurbished 1947 trawler, three large dogs and a small cat crowd into the cabin and quickly settle into their spots, each seeming to be certain of its role in this old ship's operation.

"This one here came up to me like, 'Hi, I'm your new dog, now what are you gonna feed me?'" Howell says, pointing to the largest of the three. It's clear he never felt he had any choice in the matter. Howell is an ex-combat soldier -- his left arm was blown off in battle almost 40 years ago -- and it's simply not in his nature to turn down a chance to save somebody. Even if that somebody goes by the name "Puppy."

These days, as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, Howell gets plenty of opportunities to rescue people, whether it's from plane crashes, storm winds or the stubborn recklessness of the occasional drunken sailor. He estimates that he's performed more than 100 rescue missions over the past quarter of a century, even working undercover at times for the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. But to this day, Howell's proudest mission remains one he took on 25 years ago, acting under his own orders, when he picked up 75 political refugees from Fidel Castro's Cuba and brought them to Key West, Fla., during the Mariel boatlift.

During a five-month period in 1980, more than 125,000 Cubans sought asylum in the United States. In a partly successful attempt to turn the Cuban-American community against this latest wave of immigrants, Castro forced the exile of so-called "worms" as well. These included real criminals as well as anyone else deemed defective by his regime -- political prisoners, gays, the unemployed. Although the actual percentage of criminals who arrived in the boatlift was relatively small, they dominated media accounts of the boatlift; even today, the term "Marielito" carries with it a powerful stigma. (A recent Supreme Court decision recently ordered the release of any remaining Mariel detainees; many of them had been held in Louisiana prisons.)

For more than 20 years, Howell had no idea what became of his passengers. He hoped that they had assimilated easily and done as well here as most Cubans he knew. It wasn't until Mirta Ojito, one of his passengers and now a reporter for The New York Times, tracked him down that he knew for certain. "I had always wondered what happened to those people," Howell said recently over a plate of grits and grillades at a West End cafe, his strong voice booming.

At the time, Howell was concerned only with safely navigating the Manana 90 miles across the unpredictable waters of the Florida Straits. He didn't have time to engage any of his passengers, certainly not the 16-year-old Ojito, who was seasick the entire time. "Here was this little girl who spoke not a word of English coming to tell me, 22 years later, that she's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist -- well, it really gave me closure." (Ojito shared the Pulitzer for her contribution to the 2000 New York Times series, "How Race is Lived in America.") "To me, that's the epitome of what this country offers. You know all that stuff about 'Give us your tired, your poor'? Well that stuff really means something to me."

IN HER NEW MEMOIR Finding Manana, Ojito offers such an authoritative account of the Mariel boatlift's history that it is possible to forget that it is her personal story, too. "I was never interested in the idea of writing about my life only," Ojito says, speaking by phone from Miami. "But I needed to understand this thing that happened to me, this thing that changed my life, and I decided I needed to find out who the key players had been."

Ojito describes a life under communist rule that in many ways was true to the worst stereotypes. "Do you know how many times I had to stand in line for bread?" she asks. The control of goods was merely an aggravation, however -- it was the control of ideas that could suffocate you. "They wanted to own your soul -- they wanted to take over your life, tell you what to do, who to befriend, who to write letters to, what to read," she says. "But the worst thing was living under this cloud in which you know that one false move -- and whatever is false was determined by your government -- could land you in jail. Even normal, everyday things. I mean, buying a television for us was a nightmare."

Despite the claustrophobia, Ojito admits to having been enamored of Castro's revolution as a young girl. As her schoolteachers had taught her, "To be Cuban was to be revolutionary. To be revolutionary was to be Cuban." But when her aunt and uncle came back to Cuba during a rare, government-approved visit in 1979, they brought with them seductive stories of their life in America. Her uncle didn't have to answer to anyone, except his boss at work, and he could work for whomever he liked.

Ojito writes in Finding Manana: "Everything I had grown up believing, I now knew, was at best a half-truth."

"That was the end of my love affair, such as it was," Ojito says now. "My aunt and uncle had a house and a car, they were making an OK living and didn't even have to exploit anyone else to do it. That's when I told my father to get out."

IN 1980, 35,000 CUBAN EXILES lived in the New Orleans area (the current number is estimated to be somewhere around 10,000). As news of the boatlift spread throughout the country, Cubans all along the Gulf Coast rushed to charter boats -- sometimes barely seaworthy ones -- in hopes of bringing back as many friends and relatives as they could. One Cuban-American, "a friend of a friend," offered Howell several thousand dollars to pick up his family, whom he hadn't seen in a decade. Even though Howell could have used the money, he says, "There was no way I was going to deal in human flesh."

Howell understood how the single decision of a stranger can forever change another's life. He recalls his last of more than 400 combat missions in Vietnam, when he was shot down from his helicopter and might have lost his life, not just his left arm, had one nurse not decided to "waste" blood on him. To this day, he wished he could have thanked her.

Over time, Howell's views about the Vietnam War shifted, but his belief that communism was wrong had not. At the height of the Cold War, here was another chance to get people out from under its rule. He accepted only enough cash to cover expenses, which included 78 life jackets (enough for his small crew of three and 75 passengers), and set sail for Cuba.

Not everyone in New Orleans was quite so gung-ho. Some who wanted to participate in the boatlift were deterred by misinformation, and others by subtle intimidation. Such was the case with Elise Cerniglia, an American lawyer who had spent her childhood years on her parents' sugar plantation in Cuba and for years has worked as an advocate for thousands of Cuban exiles in the New Orleans area.

"A lot of Cubans were anxious to give me money to get a boat," she remembers. "They were all waiting, the relatives of people here, but I wasn't sure it was legal." A mysterious caller had warned her against bringing more Mariel Cubans into the area. "It was some official -- I don't know who it was, and honestly I didn't want to know. They weren't threatening, but they made it clear they didn't want all these people coming here." Instead, Cerniglia helped collect food and clothes -- and find places to stay -- for the new arrivals. For a time afterward, the only other unsolicited calls she received regarding the Marielitos were from employers looking for willing workers.

If any of Howell's acquaintances thought he'd done anything wrong, they didn't tell him about it. He remembers only one isolated incident, when a fellow mariner stopped him near the docks. "You shouldn't have done that, you shouldn't have brought them over," Howell recalls the man telling him. "I asked him, 'So you must be a Native American?' The man said no, he was Italian. 'Well then, you better get on the next boat outta here.'" Howell chuckles at the memory. "I think I made my point."

It wasn't until Ojito turned her reporter's eye onto the political and social context of that era that she realized how President Jimmy Carter's widely publicized "open arms" policy, as it came to be called, did not always lead to a warm embrace. "I was under the impression, which I have come to understand was wrong, that we were welcomed," Ojito says. "We were received. And once we were here, the U.S. did everything to accommodate us. But that did not mean they wanted us."

WHEN HOWELL ARRIVED in Cuba, he gave the soldiers in charge a list of 75 names. Three days later, the soldiers told him he had to take the 300 people who were aboard a ship called the Valley Chief as well -- and that he'd be arrested if he refused. He had heard rumors that Castro was taking this opportunity to rid the country of undesirables. As soon as Howell scanned the shaved heads and vacant stares of the men aboard the Valley Chief, he knew the rumors were true. Not wanting to abandon his original mission, Howell decided he would tow the Valley Chief to international waters and let the Coast Guard deal with it from there.

"I was never really afraid of these people," he says. "Unless they could swim better than six knots, they weren't going to bother me."

Uncertain that those men wouldn't bother some of the other passengers, he brought the most vulnerable aboard the Manana -- among them Ojito, her mother and her sister. The Manana released its tow as planned, and the Valley Chief passengers -- Ojito's uncle and father among them -- were evacuated by the Coast Guard. Because many others in the boatlift had no idea how to navigate their way across the Florida Straits, the Coast Guard set up a series of strobe lights guiding their passage to Key West. Howell is still clearly moved by that memory.

"We had tears in our eyes," he says. "The U.S. government was very compassionate toward these people. To me it was the epitome of what this country is all about. We really felt like we'd done something profound."

Despite any mixed feelings she may have had about leaving behind her life in Cuba, once Ojito was reunited with her family in Florida, she knew she'd been one of the lucky ones. As a reporter for The Miami Herald and later for The New York Times, she would hear many horrible stories of Marielitos who hadn't fared as well. As she writes in Finding Manana: "After the events of Mariel, if there was any doubt left in my mind, those few weeks erased it. Because of those acts of repudiation, I did not want to be part of a country that was capable of that. I had been ready by then to leave the revolution ideologically, but by that time I was ready to leave the country as well."

The first time Ojito found Capt. Howell and the Manana was by pure luck; the second time, it took three years of hard work. Both times, she says, were life-changing. "I could not have asked for a better hero in my life," she says.

click to enlarge HECTOR GABINO
  • Hector Gabino
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