A son escapes Cuba's despair--but only to the grave

HAVANA DJB — HAVANA -- In the house on Atocha Street they wait for the garbage men to take away the wilting flowers and the purple ribbons that arrived the day before they buried the old man's son in Miami.

Jose Manuel Acevedo sits in the front room that faces the dusty street and remembers his son. He looks at the picture in the brown wooden frame of the sad-eyed 20-year-old named Jose. He talks of Jose's flight for freedom in the hold of an Iberian jet. He wipes away a tear when he describes how airport workers in Madrid found his son with a friend, two dead bodies caked with ice.


"What are they going to do to me?" he says. "If they took away my liberty and killed my son, what else can they take from me?"

In a country where dissent is rarely tolerated, where it is illegal for citizens to talk with foreigners, Mr. Acevedo is venting rage. Two pigeons flutter through a house where the only dinner is six pieces of bread. A 5-year-old grandson with a broken left leg slides from a wheelchair and plays with a wrench on the tile floor.


"I've lived here under various governments, and you can't tell me any wives' tales," he said. "The only way you can feel hunger is to feel the ache in your stomach. The conditions here are terrible, worse than ever. You can't leave cheese in a trap for rats here, because the rats don't know what cheese is."

For the rest of Cuba there is the circus of the 11th Pan American Games. But for a grieving father, whose son died July 21, there is only anger. He is 64 years old but looks about 75, his brown eyes tired and bloodshot, his ebony skin wrinkled, his hair turned white.

"My son used to say, 'When I go to the United States, I will send everyone back gifts,' " Mr. Acevedo said. "He was going to send 10-speed bikes to his nephews, food for me, ham and cheese, and some hair spray for his mom."

Jose attempted to flee the squalid, stultifying life of Havana. He was a neighborhood soccer star who dreamed of playing with the great Maradona. But he only attended school through the ninth grade.

Six months ago, Jose tried to to float on a raft with his friend Alexis Fernandez through the Straits of Florida. But they were picked up, jailed for four days and released, facing two-year prison terms.

The friends waited and plotted. On July 20, they played in the street, Jose wearing his mother's pants and making the family laugh. That night, Jose, Alexis and Fernando Ernesto Carbajal slipped onto Jose Marti Airport, found their way to the Iberian jet and waited until morning. When the plane took off, Mr. Carbajal got caught in the landing gear, fell from the sky and was killed as he crashed to the ground.

Jose and Alexis would die in the air. Their frozen bodies were found in Spain.

"I heard a news broadcast that reported that two young black men had died trying to escape Cuba," Mr. Acevedo said. "The first name I heard was my son's."


Word passed through the neighborhood. Friends and family crowded into the Acevedos' home and spilled out onto the street, and the old man said: "I didn't know how much people loved my son."

The mother, Sylvia Cardenas, demanded that her son's body be flown to the United States, where he could be buried by family that had already left Cuba.

For the first time in 12 years, Asucion Lecro saw her grandson last week. She had to identify his body at Miami International Airport and make arrangements for Saturday's funeral in Little Havana.

There is talk of a lawsuit, of somehow seeking damages from Iberia Air Lines, which in turn would try to pry money from a near-bankrupt Cuban government. It is a fanciful tale that makes Mr. Acevedo smile, if only for a moment.

"I'd take that money and use it to buy planes, boats and whatever else is necessary to pick up all these poor souls who are trying to get out," he said. "Ninety-nine and three-fourths [percent] of the people want to leave. There is no hope. What we have here is dark streets, littered with garbage. Here, you go from 7 months old to 60 years old, and you miss out on all of your life."

Few will remember the life of an old man's son who once slept in a 12-by-12 room off a back alley. All the son left behind was a bed, a table, a chair, a television set and pictures of four fashion models ripped from American magazines and pasted on a stained wall.


"When I go to the United States, it will be after we get rid of the human garbage here," Mr. Acevedo said. "And I'll go there to bring my son home."