Balseros (2002)

BALSEROS (Cuban Rafters)

(directors: Carlos Bosch and José María Doménech; screenwriters: David Trueba/Carlos Bosch; cinematographer: Josep M. Domenech; editors: Ernest Blasi/Xavier Vilalta; music: Lucrecia Pérezimpoverished; cast: Guillermo Armas, Rafael Cano, Méricys González, Oscar Del Valle, Míriam Hernández, Juan Carlos, Misclaida; Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Marcos Loris Omedes Regas; Seventh Art Releasing; 2002)-Spain-in Spanish, with English subtitles

The documentary is remarkable in how it personalized this human tragedy.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A television crew from Spain filmed and interviewed seven Cubans and their families–Guillermo Armas, Rafael Cano, Méricys González, Oscar Del Valle, Míriam Hernández, Juan Carlos and Misclaida–just before they were to make the risky voyage to America in homemade rafts in the summer of 1994. During that year the Soviet Union collapsed and so did the dependent Cuban economy. With noticeable unrest because of food shortages and an attempt to hijack a ferry to Florida setting off street riots, Fidel Castro in an act of political terrorism allowed the oppressed and “undesirables” to attempt to go to Miami in their ill-equipped inner tubes. It is estimated that maybe some 50,000 took the voyage and how many perished at sea is uncertain in this 15 day period. The documentary is skillfully directed by Carles Bosch and Josep M. Domènech, as it becomes an important historical record of that event and brings us closer to seeing some of the real people behind that news headline story.

The spirited documentary shows these impoverished families going about building their cheaply made rafts and rushing to set sail before the United States makes a pact with Castro to stop the exodus. One woman sells her body by doing tricks to earn enough money to go, most leave their family members behind to great hardship and promises of never forgetting them, while one gets thrown off the raft by delinquents and has to wait for another raft. There’s stunning footage of the unsteady rafts on the Atlantic Ocean, highlighting how dangerous indeed was this journey. In fact, Méricys González’s raft is wrecked at sea and she’s forced to return to Cuba. Soon President Clinton had little choice but to halt this madness and ordered the U.S. Coast Guard to intercept the balseros and detain them at the naval base at Guantánamo. After some nine or so months some of the lucky ones were allowed to emigrate to Miami, others were farmed out all across the States and helped by Catholic Charities to find living quarters and jobs.

Most found living in the States a nightmare rather than the American dream they expected. That none seemed to have the education or the skills needed to succeed should not be overlooked, but those who made it did so by hard work, persistence and living an honest life. Rafael Cano came here for: “A house, a car, a good woman.” In his stay, he goes through much grief and finds religion in San Antonio to relieve his embarrassment for failure and his neglect to keep contact with his worried family back home. Oscar Del Valle tries to forget about his wife and young daughter back in Cuba and leads a troubled life in the Bronx and then in Pennsylvania, getting into domestic problems with another woman and unable to find work as a sculptor. Misclaida gets materialistic and dumps her decent husband who made the trek with her, and resorts to selling drugs in Albuquerque. It was depressing watching the rafters change mostly for the worst in the seven year period the documentary follows them. Miriam Hernandez who was forced to leave her daughter in Cuba continues to wait for the day when she will be joined by her child, now 8 years old, all because she failed to fill out the bureacratic forms properly. The one bright spot was for the hard working store clerk Guillermo Armas, who prayed to La Virgen de la Caridad, Cuba’s patron saint, and at the first opportunity brought his family to Miami.

The documentary is remarkable in how it personalized this human tragedy and provided an objective sense of the struggle involved, in not only the voyage but in those settling into a new culture they were all ill-prepared for. More than making a political statement, the filmmakers were interested in showing the ongoing struggle for freedom and how the Cubans cannot forget their homeland even as these simple folks are consumed with navigating the deep waters of the capitalistic society that offers so much but is so difficult to keep afloat in. It acts as another American immigrant story, but with many different twists and complications in a world that has changed greatly since the other great influxes of immigrants to America from Europe.