Cubans Continue to Arrive in Florida Despite Reforms

Fifteen Cuban immigrants washed ashore in Florida late Wednesday, one of the largest groups to arrive in the United States since Cuban President Raul Castro announced ownership reforms on the Communist island.

The refugees — 10 men and five women, one of whom is pregnant — had traveled nearly a month to get to the U.S. and hadn't heard of the reforms, but they said they would have left anyway.

"This doesn't change anything because there aren't very many who have access to all that," said Jose Cuesta, 38, who made just $16 a month driving buses between Havana and Santiago. "You have to have money, and you can't access such things with an honorable job on the island."

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The refugees were picked up by U.S. Border Patrol in Sunrise, Fla., outside Fort Lauderdale, early Thursday morning after a monthlong odyssey that took them through the islands of the Bahamas.

The refugees set out March 3 from Camaguey, Cuba, in a homemade sheet-metal boat with a Toyota four-cylinder engine, Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Lazaro Guzman said. A week later, they landed ashore on a Bahamian island, though it's unclear which one.

There, the refugees said, they camped out for 20 days, pooling their U.S. dollars and buying a 15-foot fishing boat from a Bahamian who took pity on their case. They moved from island to island, sometimes stopping to cook fish and packs of noodles with rainwater to make soup.

On March 31, Guzman said, they set out for Florida, arriving two days later exhausted, sunburned and dehydrated.

Juneivis Guerrero, 17, is 8-months pregnant with a baby boy by Cuesta.

"I want him to have a better life than the one I had in Cuba," she said of her baby, whom the other refugees joked she should name "Fidel."

"It was very dangerous, and I was worried the whole time that she wouldn't arrive here healthy," Cuesta said of his wife.

"Cubans are made of iron," said another, Lituania Diaz, 23.

After being processed by Border Patrol and having their health checked at a Florida State Health Assessment Center, two religious groups took them to shelters in Miami's Doral neighborhood, where they were able to meet relatives and learn of Cuba's new reforms.

"What did he do?" asked refugee Leangel Genar, inquiring about Raul Castro's reforms.

When his cousin Rigoberto Bencomo explained that Raul Castro had given out microwaves, legalized the general public's use of cell phones and promised to make computers, DVD players and other electrical appliances available at state-run stores, Genar scoffed.

"It doesn't matter how many cell phones they make available, they're not worth anything if you don't have the money," Genar said. "It costs $10 a month to have one and that's an average monthly salary for most Cubans."

Nearly all of the Cubans are from Camaguey, Cuba, save one, a doctor from Las Tunas, Guzman said, but they will be allowed to stay in the United States under the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, which allows sanctuary to Cubans who reach the mainland.

The Cuban government controls well over 90 percent of the economy and while the communist system ensures most Cubans have free housing, education and health care and receive ration cards that cover basic food needs, the average monthly state salary is just 408 Cuban pesos, a little less than $20.

"They would have come either way," said Waldo Fernandez, Cuesta's cousin and a Miami TV host. "Change in Cuba is temporary, it only lasts about three days and then it goes back to the same. They [the Cuban government] have been destroying the country for 50 years, so the last one off the island had better turn off the lights and leave the Castros in the dark."

Julienne Gage,'s Sara Bonisteel and the Associated Press contributed to this report.