The right to return: A Cuban-born captain’s journey

Apr 22, 2016 by Dorie Cox


Carnival Corp. issued a  statement April 22 that it worked out an agreement with Cuban officials to bypass the Cuban law that says Cuban-born visitors cannot  travel by sea to and from the island nation.

On April 25, CEO of Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Frank Del Rio (who was born in Cuba),  said his company is seeking approvals to launch sailings to Cuba by the end of the 2016.


By Suzette Cook

In the open bay at Lauderdale Marine Center, Attorney Michael Moore said these words to a group of 85 captains who attended a panel presentation on March 29 to learn about about traveling to Cuba: “If you were born in Cuba you cannot go down by vessel, you have to go down by plane and come back by plane.”

This is a law that Cuban-born Capt. Juan Carlos Cabrera was not surprised to hear, but it is a law he hopes will be overturned one day.

“It’s discrimination,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you were born.”

“Another country is putting a restriction on a U.S. citizen. I don’t know why,” Cabrera said. “And the U.S. is trying to open a relationship.”

According to his U.S. Certificate of Naturalization, Cabrera was born in Cuba on Dec. 8, 1982 and that country became his “Country of former nationality” when he was granted U.S. citizenship on July 24, 2015.

Cabrera said his dream is to return to Cuba as a captain of a charter yacht and be able to walk off of the vessel and onto the island he grew up on, fished on, learned about and navigated with his father Carlos Cabrera, who was a harbor pilot captain.

Juan naval acad

Cabrera received his Master 500 ton license from the Cuban Navy Academy in 2003.

Cuba is also the place Juan left eight years ago at 4 a.m. on Sept. 25, 2008 on a homemade boat named La Rosa.

His family is still in Cuba. When he left, his son was just one month old and his daughter had just turned four. He visits them by flying home and is preparing to bring them to the United States when he can afford a home and life for them. But first, he wants to find a job in the yachting industry. In the meantime, he juggles jobs as a chef and driver for Uber.

“We are waiting for them to allow us Americans born in Cuba to be part of a crew of any yacht,” Cabrera, 33, said. “But we are not allowed.”

This was Cabrera’s first event he has attended with other captains in the U.S. since being granted citizenship less than a year ago. He said he thought it would be a good way to network. Cabrera, who graduated top in his class from Cuba’s Naval Academy, said one captain at the event expressed interest in working with him because of Cabrera’s 25 years of knowledge of his native Cuba, but later, the captain changed his mind. Cabrera thinks that was because of the restrictions placed on him when it comes to traveling to Cuba by water.

That restriction was one of many topics mentioned during the educational panel and discussion sponsored by the Marine Industries of South Florida (MIASF). It included presentations about traveling to Cuba by the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Miami, Moore, senior partner with Moore & Co., a bank representative and U.S. Treasury Department attorney Charles Bishop.

Despite his Master 500 ton mariner certification from the Academia Naval “Granma” of Republica de Cuba and endorsement from the Cayman Islands, Cabrera said he is still unsuccessful finding a full-time job as a yacht captain or first mate. For now, he picks up daywork in Miami or Ft. Lauderdale when possible, and works as an Uber driver and a fusion cuisine chef at local hotels.

practice fishing boat

Cabrera, second from left, grew up fishing and driving boats in Cuba.

For Cabrera, the news of Cuba lifting some of the restrictions on travel for U.S. citizens has been good, but those changes don’t guarantee that his journey to fulfill his dream of arriving to Cuba on a vessel one day will ever become a reality.

The Cuban law has become the subject of recent controversy as Carnival Corp. announced plans for a ship from its Fathom line to sail from Miami to Havana in May. At first, the company abided by Cuba’s rule and was not selling tickets to Cuba-born passengers.

On April 18, however, Carnival Corp. changed its stance and issued this statement:

“As we continue our discussions with Cuba, and in anticipation of Fathom travelers being on equal footing with those who travel by air, we are accepting bookings from all travelers, including Cuba-born individuals. However, if Cuba’s decision is delayed beyond May 1, we will delay the start of our sailings.”

And as a class action lawsuit looms over Carnival Corp. for discriminating against Cuba-born Americans visiting the island by ship, Cabrera, a U.S. citizen, wants to know why his rights are restricted while other U.S. citizens’ rights are not.

“For me, a U.S. citizen, this is discrimination,” he said. “There is no other name.”

Cabrera said Cubans and South Florida residents are loyal cruise ship travelers and he thinks the pressure of the latest protest against the Cuban law might change the rule that prevents captains like him from entering Cuba via docks.

Deciding to leave

“It is really hard to understand how it works,” Cabrera said about why he decided to leave Cuba at age 25.


The homemade boat “LaRosa” Cabrera sailed from Cuba to Mexico with 11 passengers. (Photo Mexican Navy)

“If you are a captain of a big diesel, you get a contract, for example, for $4,000 or $5,000 a month,” Cabrera explained about working in Cuba. “You only get paid for $700 a month. The government takes it.

“If an American company wants to hire you, they can’t hire you directly. The bigger percent, they take it,” he said about the Cuban government. “They do it with doctors, too.

“I decided to leave because I was getting a little tired about that. You feel that they are using you,” Cabrera said.

“I went to school. I love what I do, but it’s hard when you see somebody steal your money.

“I have to keep silent,” he said. “Everything over there is censored. I don’t want to live like this, I want to express myself.

“When I left Cuba, there was no option. In 2008, I was in charge of a boat, there’s a lot of problems. Your own crew go against you and can take your boat to leave Cuba.

“It was scary to work in boats at that time. In 1994 it started,” he said. “People assault captains and they take control, put a gun to your head and make you take them to the U.S.”

Building the boat

Growing up, Cabrera said he was best friends with his father who started as a shrimp boat captain and became a harbor pilot captain. Cabrera remembers jumping from the pier in his small coastal town of Jucaro, in the Province Ciego De Avila, where his dad’s shrimp boat was docked.


Cabrera said his father Carlos Cabrera was his best friend and as a kid he wanted to go on every trip his father took on ships.

“My father was my best friend,” he said. “My father was my teacher. Every trip that he went on, I always wanted to go with him.”

When the time came for Cabrera to leave, he kept his plans secret from his family.

“My Mom, she smelled it, my plans,” he said. “My father? No. If I had told him, he would have stopped me.”

“The boat got built in nine months,” Cabrera said. “I provided books, a lot of ideas. Probably 90 percent of the construction was in my mind.”

“It was not a real boat,” he said of its rough construction. “In these nine months, I visited the boat two times.”

“Being a captain, doing what I was doing, they’d take me away from my job and it would be a mark forever,” Cabrera said about what would have happened if he and his friends and family had been caught building the vessel.

“My group would bring me pictures. Twice I visited the boat. They built it in a house,” he said.

“When they finished, they took it all apart.”

He said they marked pieces of the boat so they could match them when they were ready to reassemble it.

“We covered it with aluminum. There’s a lot of waterlines in Cuba they use for agriculture. We cut it on one side and we open it. We try to put a big piece very flat and we used it to cover the boat. For the unions (joints) we used asphalt.

“That day they called me and somebody picked me up from my home,” he said about leaving in 2008.

Cabrera said they walked for almost 10 km to get to the boat.

“We had to go to the woods, close to the coast. I had to walk carrying food, supplies, water. It’s coast, it’s like the Everglades,” he said.

Because the weather wasn’t cooperating, Cabrera said they spent an extra four days waiting out storms and that delayed the trip along with mechanical issues.

“The engine kept falling in the water,” he said. “The starter wouldn’t work. We left at 4 a.m.”

Journey by sea

Cabrera was 25 years old and the only passenger who was a captain.

“No one else had captain experience,” he said. “Me and my brother were the biggest part of the group who was family.

“I only carried a small magnetic compass and chart from England,” Cabrera said about how he navigated the boat for the 600-mile journey.

“The nautical chart was from the ‘70s from a friend. That’s hard in Cuba to get a chart,” he said. “There’s no store like Bluewater Charts or West Marine.

“We traveled for 15 days,” Cabrera said. “Five days with a motor. We ran out of gas and we sailed the last 10 days.”

Two tropical storms crossed Cuba that month,  Cabrera said. “We got caught in the depression.”

“We arrived to Cayman Brac, we went to Little Cayman and then to Grand Cayman.

“When we left Grand Cayman, that’s when the story began, that was the worst travel.”

The boat was named La Rosa after the name of the family whose house it was built in. It measured about 10 meters long with a 2-meter beam and was a tight space for Cabrera and the other 11 passengers onboard who were a combination of friends and family.

Cabrera said the wood boat was stabilized by inflated inner tubes removed from tractor tires.

“We secured the boat with inner tubes on starboard and port sides, we wrapped it with lines for stability. We had water, food, medicine, a lantern to do signals.

“Sea conditions for that type of boat were really worse,” he said. “You build something and you don’t do a sea trial and the first time you get in, that’s crazy. You build a yacht you do sea trial.

On the sixth day at sea, they ran out of water and food. The canned goods, cookies, candies, peanuts they had brought were gone.

“Four of the passengers, they quit in Grand Cayman because we ran out of food, ran out of gas,” Cabrera said. “I get close to the coast at Grand Cayman and they jumped in the water and they were sent back to Cuba.”


Cabrera found images of the boat he designed but left behind in Mexico via Earth Google.

The next day, a seagull landed on the mast of the makeshift, vinyl sail and his friend grabbed it by the neck. It made for good bait, Cabrera said. They caught four mahi-mahi with the pieces of that bird.

“After sixth day, the rain came through and we put it in containers,” he said. “The rain saved our lives.

“Things we learned in school. You know, how to survive.

“The rest of the days were terrible. Raining, storms. We traveled, the wind was always heading west, west, west. The first thing we saw, some seagulls. The smell at nighttime, when the wind changed. The land wind, you smell it. The next morning I was on the bow of the boat and I see some pine trees. We’re close.

“We get to Banco Chinchurro, a very huge coral reef line close to the coast of Mexico and you see the next morning we get close to that and you see all of the water on that reef.

“It’s a lot of reef and we are not under command, no engine.

“I can see a little spot to cross. I get to that point and okay we got to jump to the water to raise the boat.

“We jump and at that time a wave comes. Push it. Big history. Little by little with our sail, 4 knots, 3 knots. We see a search light. Is it a light house? No it’s not a light house.

The Mexican Navy had spotted them the night before, but Cabrera said they had waited until daybreak to pick them up and tow the handmade vessel.

“The next morning at about 7:30 a.m. two big boats from the Mexican Navy tried to get to the point that we were.They told us it was them that night but they kept us on track and waited until morning to get us.

“They talked on the speaker close to us, ‘You are in Mexican waters and you need to come with us.’ ”

“We were really cooperating. It’s part of the process. We can do nothing. We leave the boat and we boarded one of the boats and the other towed the boat we come over in” Cabrera said. “We’re going to be in Mexico.”

Landfall in Mexico

Cabrera relives details of the arrival in Mexico.

“They take you to a small military place on the coast,” Cabrera said. “We get there and we get checked by a doctor. We took a shower. It was the best part of the day.

“After that, they took us to immigration. We spend 18 days waiting in Mexico for paperwork to continue travel. We pay the fine. $400 for each person. My uncle from the U.S. sent me money. We pay to fly from Chetumal to Mexico City, Mexico City to Matamoros, and we reach the border. We stay on the border for 12 days and we asked for political asylum.

“We wait for 10 hours.”


In the United States

“We arrive to the border at 10 p.m. at the end of October.

U.S. officials accepted Cabrera’s request for protection and granted him asylum.  


By definition, “asylum may be granted to people who are already in the United States and are unable or unwilling to return their home country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

“When you feel like you are harassed by your country,” Cabrera said.

“The day I entered the U.S. was October 30. I spend almost a month,” he said.

“When we get our parole, paperwork, we take a taxi to a hotel. We went to an airport first but it was too late.

“We went to a small hotel, rest, eat, take a shower. Next morning from Brownsville, Texas to St. Louis to Kentucky.

New life

Cabrera moved in with his uncle in Kentucky and spent two years there working at restaurants but eventually moved to Miami with his brother Abel Perdomo Rey who traveled from Cuba with him on La Rosa and eventually moved to Tampa.

Cabrera recalls what is was like to move to Miami from Kentucky.

“Here I am in Miami,” he said. “No friends, no family. My brother has a friend who was working at a hotel on Key Biscayne. My brother’s friend spoke for them. At that time, I don’t know anyone in the industry, how that works.

“I started working, anything to survive. I spent time working in hotels.

“One night I took a shower, lay down, and I look at the ceiling. I realize, I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.

Getting back on water

Cabrera plans to work as a captain again.

“I did some research,” Cabrera said. “I got some instruction. I went to ICT (International Crew Training) but was at MPT (Maritime Professional Training) first.

He realized that he needed to update his training and start getting his certifications in order.

“When I go into MPT, I was frozen,” Cabrera said. “Technology, a lot of new things.”

“I have a friend who is a marine surveyor. He gives me some magazines. I learn that Cayman Islands can accept my Cuban captain certification.

“I met with Todd Bice at MPT where I was taking my classes. I was the only Spanish guy in that classroom, and I would ask when I didn’t understand.

“Matt was my instructor. MPT, they knew it was not my language. So they showed me, to help me. When I got the test, I did well. They were proud of me.

Now, Cabrera is working with the USCG on getting his certifications recognized and looking for work in the industry.

“I am doing daywork,” he said. “Meeting people and trying to get involved in the industry.  I want to see. It’s good way to meet people.

“I’m a very simple person. I’m a captain but I will do a deckhand job,” Cabrera said. He’s been working on the M/Y Happy Hour in Miami as a deckhand, he said.

Journey continues

Cabrera said he is lucky to have made the trip to the U.S. safely.

“It’s hard when you have to leave your country. The place you were born, you grow, to go to work. You don’t know what’s going to happen in the middle of the sea. A lot of people left and did not see their dreams come true,” he said about surviving the boat ride.

And while he continues to prepare for his family to come join him, he knows they have hope of a better life in the U.S. and are patient.

His mother ended up coming to Miami to visit and spent two years with Cabrera, he said. His father died of a heart attack three years ago and never came to the U.S. Cabrera plans to unite with his girlfriend and children as soon as they are ready.

Juan 1

Cabrera is working in Miami as a deckhand, in restaurants and driving for Uber while he looks for a position on a yacht or ship. Photo by Suzette Cook

“Probably next year, I will bring them here,” he said. “We see a future if we bring them here.”

Making history in Cuba

When he returns home, friends and family still speak of his journey to the U.S.

“Especially with my Mom,” he said. “When my father was alive, we spoke a lot about it.

“I was missing for 15 days,” he said about how they worried until they knew he was safe. “They know after I get to Mexico, probably day 17, I was able to call Cuba,” Cabrera said.

Cabrera says that much of the journey is undocumented because, “We did not have phones back then to take pictures.”

But he still has looks back on the journey.

He has a photo of himself and the other passengers in the boat taken by the Mexican Navy.  He plays the footage via the internet from the Mexican TV news reporting that eight Cubans successfully sailed to Mexico from Cuba.

And on Google Earth, Cabrera is excited to have discovered a photo of the boat that delivered him on this journey,  sitting askew and abandoned on the beach in Mexico.

Suzette  Cook is editor of The Triton. Comments on this survey are welcome at



About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is a writer with Triton News.

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