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Why a US mayor plans to raft from Cuba to Florida

The young mayor of DeBary, Fla., says he plans to row from Havana to Key West in a homemade raft next month, in order to better understand the plight of Cuban refugees.

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Coast Guard personnel left, try to assist a group of Cuban migrants on a makeshift vessel in the Florida Straits, Jan. 4. The US Coast Guard says it's documenting increasing instances of violence and non-compliance at sea among Cuban migrants.

U.S. Coast Guard/AP/File

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The mayor of DeBary, Fla., is preparing to travel from Cuba to Key West on a homemade raft next month.

Mayor Clint Johnson says he plans to fly to Cuba with his wife and build a raft out of basic supplies before rowing back to the United States by himself. He says he wants to see for himself what Cuban refugees experience when making the 90-mile trek. 

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“I want to experience what it’s like to come here on a raft. You hear about it online, it’s almost entirely unreported,” Mayor Johnson told WOFL Fox 35. “I want to know what the men, women, and children go through to get here.” 

Elected as Mayor of DeBary by majority vote in 2014, Mr. Johnson is the youngest elected official in the city’s history. 

“I love going on adventures, I love living outside the box and really pushing my boundaries and doing stuff that isn’t normally done,” he told the Daytona Beach News-Journal. 

Johnson said the idea came to him in light of recent steps to renew diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba. The Obama administration reopened an embassy in Havana in 2015, for the first time in 54 years, and the president plans to visit Cuba later this month.

The US Coast Guard says there has been an upward trend in Cuban migrants attempting the perilous sea journey in recent years. In 2010, 1,092 migrants made the dangerous trip across the Florida Strait and then another 2,129 migrants again in 2013. And in 2014, as many as 4,000 Cubans tried to reach the US by sea. The Coast Guard fears that new diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba is encouraging more dangerous immigration efforts by Cuban refugees.  

Johnson plans to bring some atypical 21st century conveniences. 

The Mayor plans to have two GPS devices so he can send his location to authorities and even text if he so wishes. He says a selfie stick and GoPro camera will also make the packing list so he can document his journey. 

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“I want the trip to be as authentic as possible,” he told the News-Journal. “If I’ve got a big boat sitting right there with granola bars on it or where I can just holler and be like ‘Hey, I’m a little tired, I’ll get on the boat,’ to me that ruins the whole thing. So, if I did have a chase boat it would definitely be far out of sight.” 

With good weather, Johnson says he can make the trip in two days. With complications, he estimates the journey could last a full week.

And this isn’t Johnson’s first dramatic adventure. Last year the young mayor rode his bicycle 800 miles from Tallahassee to Key West to promote nature trails in his home state. 


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