MANZANILLO Cuba (Reuters) - Eighteen-year-old Miguel Lopez Maldonado boarded a homemade boat last month with 31 others, leaving behind this sleepy fishing town on Cuba’s southeast coast to seek a new life in the United States.
The motor broke down after a couple days, and the craft drifted for three weeks. One by one, the passengers died of thirst, the survivors left with no option but to throw the bodies overboard.
By the time the Mexican navy spotted them 150 miles off the Yucatan peninsula, 15 had died, including Lopez Maldonado. Of the 17 rescued, two died in a Mexican hospital.
Lopez Maldonado’s parents say they don’t understand why their son left. But others here say many young Cubans see no future in a state-run economy, under U.S. sanctions for 50 years, with few opportunities for private enterprise.
“Young people today do not think like my generation did. They are looking for something more that they can’t find here,” the dead teen’s father, Miguel Lopez Vega, said, sobbing, in the living room of the family’s home as neighbors stopped by to offer comfort.
“My son wanted to leave Cuba since he was 15. He didn’t want to live in this country.”
The tragedy, the worst Cuban migrant boat disaster in two decades, is part of a growing illegal exodus from eastern Cuba - a region famous as the launching pad of the 1959 revolution in the nearby Sierra Maestra mountains.
U.S. authorities say 14,000 Cubans arrived without visas at the border with Mexico in the past 11 months, the highest number in a decade.
In Manzanillo, a run-down colonial city of 130,000 in eastern Granma province, residents say as many as five boats, with up to 30 passengers, depart in weeks with favorable weather.
Passengers in last month’s voyage, who were aged 16 to 36, each paid the equivalent of $400 to $600 for the 675-mile trip.
The situation threatens to further strain relations between Cuba and the United States. Cuba argues that U.S. policy foments illegal and dangerous departures by granting Cubans a special right of entry not offered to other nationalities.
The wave of migration also exposes the fragility of President Raul Castro’s market-oriented reforms, in which independent farming and small businesses have been legalized in an attempt rebuild a private sector wiped out in 1959.
Joaquín de La Paz, who works at a rice mill, lost a daughter, a son and two grandsons in last month’s tragedy. He said economic hardship and a lack of jobs in Manzanillo, once a busy port handling sugar from nearby cane fields, had made people desperate.
De La Paz, 62, said that even though his daughter was a teacher and his son worked for the health ministry, neither earned enough to satisfy their needs.
“The kids see people leave Cuba who never even had a bicycle, and then by the time they return within a year their family situation is improved,” he said.
“Look at me. After 43 years of work, I haven’t been able to acquire anything, except sadness and sorrow for my family.”
One granddaughter decided at the last minute not to join her mother and brother, but De la Paz frets that she will be next. The girl’s 16-year-old brother, Hector, was rescued, but he died on the way to a hospital.
De la Paz’s wife, Xiomara Milan, sobbed alongside him as she recounted how they raised pigs to feed the family. She said all she had left was the hope her grandson would be returned for burial, adding the family did not have the money to repatriate his body.
Family members and neighbors said the government and state-run media have been silent about the tragedy. Only the Catholic Church has offered solace, they said.
A Mass for the victims was held in the town’s main Catholic church on Friday, and prayers were offered “for those who feel the need to find another country to live.” One speaker urged people to think hard about the decision and “look for safer paths.”
There were also prayers that Cuban authorities “achieve the necessary material and spiritual progress” of the country.
Relatives of the victims said their only information has come from survivors detained by immigration authorities in Mexico, who have been allowed to call home twice a week.
They are pleading with Mexican authorities not to deport the survivors back to Cuba, and to allow them to continue their journey to the U.S. border.
Niurka Aguilar, the mother of one survivor, Maylin Perez, said it was her daughter’s fifth attempt to leave. Perez, 30, was hoping to join her husband, who made the trip nine months ago and now lives in Texas.
“If they send her back, she will just try again,” said Aguilar.
Editing by David Adams, Marc Frank and Douglas Royalty