As Cuba slips into one of the worst economic crises since the start of Castro’s revolution, its people are fleeing in greater numbers on dangerous voyages to the United States and facing disasters on the high seas.
In the latest calamity, two Cuban migrants died and 10 others were missing after their boat capsized in the Florida Strait south of Key West this week, while the US Coast Guard rescued eight survivors on Thursday and continued. their research mission on Friday.
The tragedy reflected the loss of as many as 17 Cubans fleeing in a rickety boat last November, when the number of migrant crossings began to rise amid the island nation’s collapse amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Relatives of recent missing migrants, who left Puerto de Mariel, Cuba on Sunday, still clung to the slim hope of being rescued.
“Families are going crazy,” said Raul Capote, 35, who moved to Miami from Mariel 15 years ago. “It’s a great community here. A lot of people here know the people who were in the boat. We are very much like a family. “
Capote said that Mariel’s family and friends have been in constant contact with him since news of the tragedy at sea broke on Thursday. The migrants’ boat capsized on Wednesday evening and has not been found.
“I really don’t know what to tell them,” he said.
No description of the boat that sank
Petty Officer Jose Hernandez, a spokesman for the Coast Guard, said there was still no description of the sinking boat.
Despite a change in US policy that no longer allows Cuban migrants to stay in the United States after reaching its shores, a growing number of people continue the risky journey through the Florida Strait aboard makeshift, non-navigable ships.
According to the Coast Guard, many more Cubans are trying their luck with the treacherous journey this year than last year.
The federal government tracks migration attempts by fiscal year, which begins October 1. Seven months into this exercise, the Coast Guard says it has already arrested 298 Cuban people at sea, compared to 49 for the whole of fiscal 2020.
This recent wave appears to be caused by a combination of the deteriorating economic situation on the island and a lack of legal migration routes. These conditions preceded any migrant crises in the past, starting with the boat lift at Camarioca in 1965 after Fidel Castro came to power six years earlier, said William LeoGrande, professor at the American University. from Washington and expert in Latin America.
“Things are extremely difficult right now, with a terrible shortage of food and medicine,” said LeoGrande. “The government has very little foreign currency to be able to import things. And if you look at the list of Cuban imports, very close to the top is food, medicine, and fuel. “
Critics of the Cuban government directly blame the Communist regime, which they say not only severely suppresses dissent in the country, but also mismanages the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cuban economy affected by coronavirus pandemic
The Cuban economy is mired in serious trouble after pandemic lockdown measures shut down its tourism industry and drastically cut income. Before the pandemic, the island nation was already reeling from the general government’s mismanagement and the tougher sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, including restrictions on remittances.
The elimination of a dual currency system, which was approved ten years ago but implemented only this year, has led to a surge in inflation; meanwhile, wages have not increased at the same rate. Empty shelves in public supermarkets and rise in COVID-19 cases fuel desperation, as The nascent Cuban civil society uses social media to express opposition to the one-party communist regime.
“Unfortunately, for 60 years this tragedy has been a constant for the Cuban people. This is because the Cuban regime not only executes people, but it also kills the hopes of people, who see no choice but to take the ocean, ”said Ramón Saúl Sánchez, leader of the Democracy Movement group. Miami-based, or Movimiento Democracia.
“There is an ongoing silent exodus that is increasing,” he said.
On a separate trail last week, another group of 11 migrants set out from Cuba to cross the Strait of Florida. But their raft capsized and they lost food, water and medicine, the Coast Guard said.
When they finally reached the waters of Alligator Reef Light in Islamorada last Saturday, there were 10 people alive. A man died during the trip.
Another migrant boat has been stopped in the waters off the Florida Keys by the Coast Guard. On Monday, 21 Cuban migrants were repatriated to their homeland.
And last November, a group of up to 1Cuban migrants left northwestern Cuba, but they were never seen or heard from again. The Coast Guard began searching for the group on November 10 before canceling the rescue effort eight days later.
Sánchez, the leader of the democracy movement, urged Cubans not to take their chances in the perilous journey – not only because of the great risks, but also because there is no longer any legal incentive to do so. make. since the United States ended its “wet feet, dry feet” policy in early 2017.
Change in US-Cuban immigration policy
Under the old policy, Cuban migrants captured at sea trying to reach the United States were returned to Cuba. However, those who have walked on US soil above the high water mark could stay and apply for permanent residence after a year and a day.
For years, this special immigration law fueled the Cuba-Florida migration across the Strait, a route with a deadly history. In March 2016, on the eve of former President Barack Obama’s historic visit to the island, 18 Cubans were rescued by a Royal Caribbean ship some 130 miles off the Florida coast. They were aboard a 30-foot boat and told authorities nine other migrants had died during the 22-day journey from Cuba.
Elia Gonzalez, who at 5 years old was found floating on an inner tube in the open sea on Thanksgiving Day in 1999, survived a tragic crossing: the small aluminum boat that initially carried 14 people from Cuba, including her mother, was broke and took water. His mother perished along with 10 others, leading to a highly politicized custody battle between Elián’s parents in Miami and his father in Cuba. The boy, who was temporarily cleared for the United States, returned with his father to Cuba.
Cuban rafters still trying to escape to the United States
Now, under the new immigration policy for Cubans, anyone caught at sea or on land is returned to Cuba, unless they apply for asylum and can prove that they are being persecuted by the Cuban government.
Despite the new reality, many Cubans still seek to flee to the United States – although nothing remotely resembles the massive migrations from Cuba during the 1980 Mariel Lift and the 1994 Raft Exodus.
The Coast Guard’s search for 10 Cuban migrants missing from the Strait of Florida will continue over Memorial Day weekend. Other agencies, including the U.S. Navy, Customs and Border Protection, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, are participating in the research.
So far, the Coast Guard said the search has covered approximately 6,552 square miles, roughly the size of the state of Hawaii.
The tragic incident is not being treated as an alien smuggling operation, according to federal authorities. No criminal investigation has been opened, they said.
It remains to be seen whether the eight Cubans rescued Thursday will be granted humanitarian visas to stay in the United States, authorities said.