Small Boat to Freedom

A follow-up on the Houston Maritime Museum article
By Byron D. Varner

Cuban refugee Reinaldo Berre's connection with Jim Manzolillo and the Houston Maritime Museum had its origin in the 1950s. Jim was Caterpillar Tractor's Marine Engine Division representative in all of Latin America at that time.

Reinaldo at age 10, with models. Berre photo.
Among Manzolillo's business acquaintances in Havana was Francisco Berre, a Lawyer and Exporter, father of Reinaldo. Senor Berre invited Jim to his home for dinner one evening. Reinaldo, then about 10-years old, showed their guest some ship models he had made. Jim was amazed by the high quality and authenticity of the young Cuban's work and encouraged him to continue to refine his skills. Not knowing many Americans, Reinaldo never forgot this kind gentleman who expressed such appreciation for his talent.

He continued his artistic pursuit into his teen years, publicly displaying and selling his models at a profit, and eventually enrolled at the University of Havana to study Architecture. When Fidel Castro came to power, however, Reinaldo was required to change his major to engineering because the new Communist leader said, in effect, “We don't need art, we need construction people.”

The disappointed student had no real interest in engineering and later dropped out of school. He took up work as an interior designer, restoring antique frames and furniture, but secretly continued in his artistic model building - his true passion.

Over the years, Cuban police hassled him at frequent intervals because he wouldn't hew to the “new order.” They suspected him of black market dealings and searched his house for U.S. dollars or other evidence of clandestine work. Occasionally, they put him in jail for short periods but released him for lack of evidence. Had they discovered the truth, he might still be behind bars today.

With their national economy rapidly deteriorating, few Cubans had money to spend, but the staff members at Havana's various foreign embassies did. Reinaldo showed them his fine work and made confidential deals that allowed him to build models to their specifications, with payment in U.S. dollars. They paid much less than comparable European artists would charge, yet it was good income for the young entrepreneur. He continued this secretive arrangement until he finally left his native land.

This English brig of 1700 was
the last model Reinaldo completed
for foreign embassy personnel
before he left Cuba
in 1998. Berre photo.
The dollar was a medium of exchange that would buy food and clothing when Cuban pesos often could not. This is how he and his family were able to survive all these difficult years. “Today,” he says, “conditions are even worse for most Cubans than they were back then, despite Castro's propaganda that says otherwise.”

Reinaldo made several unsuccessful attempts to leave Cuba secretly by boat, despite the fact that Cuban Costal Patrol crews carried out a shoot-to-kill policy against Cuban men, women and children alike when they caught them trying to escape within Cuban territorial waters. He says that many have died in this inhumane manner.

His father and mother had hoped to escape, but his father died and his mother became physically unable to attempt the rigors of such a demanding ordeal. Nevertheless, she implored Reinaldo to keep trying because it was his only hope for the future. Thus, in 1998, with his wife and another couple, the attempt was successful and they somehow reached international waters undetected.

The open seas were almost too much for their small craft, however, and they suffered from sun, wind and nausea — but worse, they were without water during the last five days of the journey. Toward the final day they were even driven by desperation to try drinking their own urine to slake the excruciating thirst.

Almost in delirium, they sighted land on the horizon and gradually drifted to shore just before sunset. Summoning all their strength, they beached the boat, took their few precious belongings (mostly photos and family documents) and slowly walked inland until they came to a road. Several cars passed without heeding Reinaldo's frantic arm waving, but soon one stopped to pick them up. It was then they found out they had landed in the American Virgin Islands.

The driver took them to the local police station where authorities called the Coast Guard. They received food, drink, first aid, a hot bath and clean clothes, and were the Coast Guard cutter transported them to the U.S. Immigration Service in Miami.

Following the usual interrogation and documentation, INS officials gave them work permits and Renaldo found a suitable place to live in Miami's “Little Havana” area. He took odd jobs to earn money for food and rent and gradually was able to afford tools and supplies to resume the model building that would increase his income.

Reinaldo, telling about his plight, said: “We are so grateful to the American people and their government for allowing us to come here to live and work in peace. No one can imagine how precious freedom is until they have lost it.”

He and his wife had been living in Miami two years when a friend who knew about his models gave him something that changed his life again. It was a copy of the Houston Chronicle with a story about a man who owned a large collection of model ships. Under the man's photo was the name James Manzolillo.

Reinaldo was certain this was the same person he met when he was a young kid in Havana almost four decades earlier. The photo even looked much like the man he remembered from that single meeting. Noting that the article included a telephone number, he decided to call and find out for sure. The two had an exciting telephone reunion and, as Ray explained it, “We talked and talked, and before you know it I was here in Houston, just like something in the movies. Now I am crafting historic ships for display in the museum.”

Does he like it here? Everything but the weather!

Reinaldo today.
KA photo.
While most people who live in Houston consider its winters very mild, Reinaldo says, “It is not like Havana or Miami. It is a cold winter we are not used to, but I think in time it is a better place for my model business. But, I do miss looking at the beautiful Atlantic Ocean every day — the Texas Gulf Coast is just not the same.”

Family is very important to his culture and he is sad that he may never see his mother again. She lives with his daughter, who also remains there, but he hopes someday to be reunited with her. It helps that his wife's brother lives in the Houston area, but independence is also a strong trait and Reinaldo does not want to impose on family members for financial aid.

He hopes to become an American citizen when his five-year residency is completed. He also hopes his volunteer work to help Manzolillo make the Museum a success will also expose his talent to many visitors and increase the opportunity for more commissioned model work.

“People sometimes ask why my models are priced more expensive than models they see in stores,” Reinaldo says, “but they do not understand what big bargains these are for the long time it takes me to build them. Even on the smallest ones I may work 45 days, and much longer than that on the big ones.”

From what this writer has seen, he agrees with Berre. These beautiful models truly are bargains, considering the rare artisan craft quality and Rey Berre's tender loving care in building them.