Cuban Chugs at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

, Cuban Chugs at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

On a recent dive trip to Key West, we stopped at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden specifically to see the Cuban Chugs, the primitive vessels Cuban migrants built to reach the United States.

, Cuban Chugs at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

I had heard about the Mariel Boat Lift in 1980, and seen the boats from Castro’s open immigration policy collected and stored at docks near my home.

Also, I’d seen photos of the rafts Cubans piloted across from Cuba to Florida. In person, I wanted to see the ingenuity and materials used and ponder what makes people take such risks to leave their country.

We had a trip to Cuba planned in a couple months, and we wanted to take a look at these to get an idea of what people went through to get to the United States, and try to understand the trip of crossing the Florida Straits in a handmade vessel.

, Cuban Chugs at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

The gardens is an arboretum, botanical garden, museum, wildlife refuge, and habitat. It is a very serene, quiet spot in the middle of the well-developed islands in the Florida Keys. It’s hard to believe you are near downtown Key West when you tour the gardens. We took a quick look, then headed to see the Chugs, named for the noise their engines made.

, Cuban Chugs at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

The Cuban Chugs

The gardens not only feature a quiet oasis in the middle of urban island living, they also have the largest known collection of Cuban Chugs; the boats Cubans built and trusted to carry them from Cuba to Florida.

While the Key West Gardens website does not seem to mention the Cuban boats, they do mention raising awareness of threatened, endangered flora and fauna of the Florida Keys, Cuba, and the Caribbean Basin. I was finally able to find a page hosted on their website explaining the Chugs exhibit, and this plaque at the gardens.

, Cuban Chugs at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

Beginnings of Refugees

The Cuban Revolution in the 1960’s brought refugees seeking escape in everything from stolen fishing vessels to inner tubes. As a child, I remember the stories of Cubans found on inner tubes, or tubes found washed ashore with no people around. In 1966, the Cuban Adjustment Act almost guaranteed legal residency and citizenship for Cubans who reached the U.S.

Then in 1980, due to job and housing shortages, a weak Cuban economy, and tensions at the Peruvian embassy, Castro announced the Port of Mariel would be open for Cubans to depart if they had someone to take them.

125,000 Cubans fled in about 1,700 boats. The U.S. Coast Guard rescued most, but 27 died, 14 in one incident where an overloaded boat capsized. The U.S. and Cuba mutually agreed to end that opportunity in October of 1980.

, Cuban Chugs at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

Cuba Allows Citizens to Leave,
US Allows Cubans to Stay

When Cuban President Fidel Castro announced it was not a crime to leave the country in 1994, interceptions of Cubans by the Coast Guard rose from a few thousand to 37,000.

The U.S. government revised the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 in response to the increased traffic. Around 1994, the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy went into effect. That made it legal for Cubans who made it to land – or sand – to remain. It also gave them asylum, qualified them for expedited legal permanent resident status and eventually U.S. citizenship. This allowance was unique; no other migrants besides Cuban refugees qualified for it.

Later, in the 1990’s, I remember hearing about boats powered by car engines modified to drive propeller shafts. Having grown up on sailboats, I was familiar with propeller shafts, and cars, but could not imagine what ingenuity it must have taken to drive a car across the ocean.

The name “Chug” came from the air cooled engines’ noise, and I imagined how difficult it would be to muffle the sound of a car engine on the water where sounds travel for miles.

In 2017, the government terminated the “wet-foot, dry-foot” allowance.

, Cuban Chugs at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

Where the Cubans Landed

The vessels of the Cuban refugees came ashore regularly in the Dry Tortugas, the Florida Keys, the Marquesas, and even further North toward Miami in Key Biscayne.

Thousands of people died making the treacherous journey.

If vessels were caught between countries by either country, they were returned to Cuba.

, Cuban Chugs at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

Common News in Florida

Living in Florida, it was weekly news to hear of additional refugees making it to land, and I heard about rafts found as far north as off the coast of South Carolina, carried North by the Gulf Stream.

At the Dry Tortugas National Park, one chug dated July 4, 2007 is near the fort. A typical construction method emerged, with many vessels constructed from aluminum sheeting, with slab sides designed to float many people.

We heard of vessels found powered by outboard motors, car engines, lawn and mower engines. Accounts of refugees leaving behind water bottles, medicine, clothing and more were common news those days.

, Cuban Chugs at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

Trash or History

The Coast Guard often burned or sunk the boats. They were treated as eyesores and garbage, and often posed health risks to workers due to fuel and gas on board.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the Florida Public Archaeology Network developed a database to catalog the Chugs. The program was introduced in 2017, and a week later, the U.S. government ended the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy.

Often, the boats were abandoned with personal belongings in them; childrens’ toys or religious objects. What an incredible testament to the resiliency and determination of the Cubans to seek democracy.

, Cuban Chugs at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

Displays of Chugs Around Florida

There are Chugs on display a couple places in Florida in addition to the ones at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden.

One can be seen in the Dry Tortugas. There are boats on several islands in the Biscayne National Park. Also, the History Miami Museum, the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center have displays. The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West displays artifacts from Chugs.

, Cuban Chugs at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

60 Years Since the Cuban Revolution

While we walked around the boats, we pondered the current lives of the people brought to this country by these vessels. We wondered if they fared well, if they were pleased with their decision to leave Cuba, if they thought much about the monumental hurdle they had overcome to change their life.

Only lizards accompanied us on our wanderings and ponderings. Later, on a recent visit to Cuba, we never had the courage to ask anyone if they knew anyone or had any relatives who made it to the US in this manner.

We’re going back to Cuba soon. It’s a one hour flight, 60 minutes to travel 60 years back in time. We can come and go freely.

Maybe we will ask those uncomfortable questions. Were people happy that they left, did anyone regret leaving. Can they return. Do they want to return. There is nothing quite like the love people have for their homeland, or the pull it exerts on us humans.

After quite a long time spent examining the Chugs, we spent a few minutes admiring the ponds at the gardens and letting what we saw sink in.

, Cuban Chugs at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

Finding the Botanical Garden

Located right around the corner from where we were staying on the Key West Golf Course, our navigation app had some trouble finding the location – it was further toward Key West than indicated, and we finally found the front gates. Supposedly this is one of those “hidden secrets” sightseeing guides like to promote. It was hard to find.

, Cuban Chugs at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden
, Cuban Chugs at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

Quick Look at the Gardens

There are over 2,600 species of palms, and I was delighted to see some of my favorites at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden.

, Cuban Chugs at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

We were short on time, so after visiting the Chugs, we headed to the Cuban Palms Exhibit, then the Visitor’s Center. We vowed to return when we had more time, because the trails and ponds looked wonderful.

, Cuban Chugs at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

Musical Instruments

Of interest is a collection of outdoor musical instruments on the bank of one of the three ponds.

We played a bit for the turtles who seemed to have gathered to hear our attempts. I bet there are some talented musicians who stop by and put on a much better show.

, Cuban Chugs at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

Bird Watching and Plant Identities

At the Welcome Center, this list above caught my eye. Although we had come specifically to see the Chugs, we plan to return and spend a whole day at the gardens so we can spot a few of these feathered visitors.

, Cuban Chugs at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

The displays on plants from Cuba, the Bahamas, and the rest of the Caribbean are well-marked with detailed information. More reasons to return!

We noticed a few people stop there on their lunch break to eat under the trees. Every once in awhile, a person alone, or a couple of friends would emerge from one of the trails and head off in another direction.

No one seemed terribly interested in the Chugs, but we will visit them again. We will look at them with new insight into the powerful situations that propel people to leave their country.

More Reading About Chugs:

The Meaning of the Chug By Karuna Eberl

In Search of a Cuban Chug by Brad Bertelli This is a really thorough explanation of the “four waves” of Cuban exodus, and worth reading.


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  • MMcRAE August 29, 2019 at 4:07 pm

    Dear Kim Walther,

    Thank you for contacting the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden with your uplifting comments and update. We appreciate all the help we can get. Thank you for mentioning the Garden in your blog.

    A double dose of appreciation on recognition of the Cuban Chugs. Since 2009, the Garden has had a collection of vessels to show the cultural struggles around us. Each successful ‘dry foot landings’ of the time that is no longer the opportunity offered, the collection continues to offer a glimpse into human kind has for the taste of freedom.

    We are currently in the process of fundraising to restore the collection and improve the exhibit. If you have any associates or connections that can assist in this endeavor, please let me know.

    Once again, thank you for your visit and blog. Thank you.

    Sincerely,
    Mr. Misha D. McRAE
    Executive Director
    Key West Botanical Garden Society

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