July 25, 2003
HAVANA - The Cubans who converted a 1951 Chevy pickup into a boat and sailed to within 64 kilometres of Florida said Thursday they were sure that the sheer audacity of their act would guarantee entry into the United States.
But they were spotted in the middle of the Florida Straits by U.S. officials and returned Wednesday to the island.
"We thought that they would let us in because it was so outrageous," Ariel Diego Marcel told Associated Press Television News.
"They told us we would not be able to go to the United States, because it was illegal," added Eduardo Perez Gras, who is unemployed, like most of the rest of the dozen people who tried to get to South Florida on the bright green truck-boat. "We just wanted to be economically free, without problems."
In the group were nine men, two women and a baby.
Perez Gras said his uncle and owner of the truck, Luis Gras Rodriguez, came up with the idea to convert the vehicle into a boat by attaching three empty metal drums on each side to make it float and connecting a propeller attached on the driveshaft to push it along. The truck-boat was powered by the vehicle's vintage engine.
"We arrived at the coast in the same truck and assembled everything in six hours," said Perez Gras, who is in his early 20s. "If they had let us get to Key West, we would have been able to drive it right onto the sand," he said.
Perez Gras said the group was at sea for 31 hours before being spotted last week by a U.S. Customs plane.
The truck was sunk as a hazard to ocean navigation.
Under U.S. immigration policies, Cubans who reach U.S. shores are allowed to stay while those caught at sea are usually returned.
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