This post is a followup to the post on Cuban Homemade Tools and Technological Disobedience, and discusses escaping Cuba by converting old American vehicles into boats.
First, the geopolitical background. American immigration policy invokes various humanitarian provisions when an immigrant is fleeing a Communist country like Cuba. America actually has many programs through which Cubans can legally gain American citizenship, including numerous immigrant visas, a preference system by which relatives of Cuban-born Americans can immigrate, randomly-drawn Diversity Visas, the Cuban Adjustment Act, and the Special Cuban Migration Program.
And then there is something known as the "wet foot, dry foot" policy. If a person flees Cuba by boat, and is intercepted at sea ("wet foot)", he is either returned to Cuba or sent to a third country. But if he makes it to shore ("dry foot"), he gets a chance to remain in the US, and then later to qualify for permanent US citizenship. This is an extremely unusual immigration policy that exists only for people fleeing Cuba to come to America. America essentially agreed to "wet foot, dry foot" with the understanding that those who attempted to flee Cuba and were returned would not be tortured or otherwise mistreated by the Cuban government.
Enter Luis Grass. Grass was a Cuban mechanic who had also trained as a naval engineer. Ownership of vehicles such as cars and boats is extremely restricted in Cuba, and Grass was one of the few who had knowledge working on both. Grass ran a car repair shop, and according to the Cuban government, it was illegal; he probably repaired cars for people who weren't allowed to own them. The government closed his shop and confiscated his 1951 Chevy two-ton truck, storing it in a military depot. Using a spare key, Grass retrieved the truck, and hid it at his friend Marciela Basanta's house.
There, the two men hatched a plan to convert the truck into a boat, and flee to America.
Grass and Basanta sealed the bottom of the truck with sheetmetal, made pontoons from steel drums and lashed them to the sides, and fabricated a prow mounted in front of the bumper. It was powered by a 236 Chevy six-cylinder engine hooked to a scavenged propellor. The tie rod ends were connected to a fabricated rudder, so that the truck-boat could be steered with the truck's steering wheel.
At 3 a.m. on July 15, 2003, Luis and 11 of his friends and family members launched the Chevy truck-boat off of a Cuban beach, and started the 90-mile trip through the Florida Strait to America. They made it a little over halfway when a US Customs plane spotted them, and the Coast Guard intercepted the vessel at sea. Fearing that the unusual 1951 Chevy truck-boat would become a famous monument, the Coast Guard sunk it. They handed out earplugs to the Cuban escapees, then turned their deck guns on it. Grass and the other occupants were sent back to Cuba.
Fidel Castro and the Cuban government were not happy. Grass and his party enjoyed a bit of publicity, and they were affectionately dubbed "truckonauts". Under the wet foot/dry foot policy, the Cuban government was supposed to allow Grass to return to his house unharmed. Instead, they detained him for a week at a Cuban military base.
A few months later, Grass was at it again. This time, he made a boat from a a '59 Buick Electra, powered by a Buick V-8. Grass's second attempt was more sophisticated; the Buick had a sharper prow, included bilge pumps, and was seaworthy without the bulky pontoons. He filled the Buick with friends and family, and on February 2, 2004, he again set out for Florida.
This time they made it within 10 miles of shore. Again the Coast Guard found them, and again they evacuated the immigrants, and fired on the boat to sink it. But this time, Grass had filled the empty compartments of the vehicle with Styrofoam. Grass claimed that they couldn't sink it, and instead are storing it somewhere. Nobody knows what became of the Electra.
After the second attempt, the Grass family convinced US authorities that they would be severely punished by the Cuban government if they returned. But Grass and his passengers had clearly been caught "wet foot", and couldn't be admitted to America either. Eventually they were granted refugee status by Costa Rica.
This part of the story is where I almost abandoned respect for Grass and his family. Turns out that, in early 2005, Grass and his family hitchhiked from Costa Rica, up through Central America into Mexico, and then snuck into America over the Mexican border. With his truck-boat, he had contrived an extremely ingenious means of legal immigration, so why ruin it all with an illegal Mexican border crossing?
Here's the saving grace though - Grass and his family didn't jump the Mexican border and secretly try to slip into American society. Once in Texas, they formally applied for political asylum as refugees fleeing Communist rule, and they were granted it by the US government.
That wasn't the end of the truckonauts. Rafael Diaz, a friend of Grass's back in Cuba, arranged for US visas for himself and his family, so that they could enter America. A visa will get you into America, but you still have to escape your country. Using Grass's techniques in altering the Buick, Rafael Diaz modified a 1948 Mercury airport limousine into a boat, and fled to America. The Coast Guard intercepted them, but because they had already been granted US visas, they were legally allowed to enter America.
What happened to Luis Grass? He got a job working at Maroone Chevrolet in West Dade, Florida, where he and other mechanics converted a '50s Chevrolet two-ton truck into a duplicate of Grass's original truck-boat, this time with Texas flag-themed upholstery, to commemorate the state where Grass was granted asylum.
I found this short clip of Luis Grass working at Maroone Chevrolet. It's clearly a mainstream media bit; they get some of the details wrong, fudge the controversial part about the Mexican border crossing, and pile on a bit too much cheese. However, you get to see footage of the replica Chevy truck-boat, as well as Luis at work in Florida as a mechanic, and an American.
Previously: Cuban Homemade Tools and Technological Disobedience