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In Rickety Boats, Cuban Migrants Again Flee to U.S.

In Rickety Boats, Cuban Migrants Again Flee to U.S.

Cuban migrants en route to Florida were intercepted by the Coast Guard
in August. Those captured at sea are sent back to Cuba. Credit United
States Coast Guard

MIAMI — In an unexpected echo of the refugee crisis from two decades
ago, a rising tide of Cubans in rickety, cobbled-together boats is
fleeing the island and showing up in the waters off Florida.

Leonardo Heredia, a 24-year-old Cuban baker, for example, tried and
failed to reach the shores of Florida eight times.

Last week, he and 21 friends from his Havana neighborhood gathered the
combined know-how from their respective botched migrations and made a
boat using a Toyota motor, scrap stainless steel and plastic foam.
Guided by a pocket-size Garmin GPS, they finally made it to Florida on
Mr. Heredia’s ninth attempt.

“Things that were bad in Cuba are now worse,” Mr. Heredia said. “If
there was more money in Cuba to pay for the trips, everyone would go.”

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Mr. Heredia is one of about 25,000 Cubans who arrived by land and sea in
the United States without travel visas in the fiscal year that ended on
Sept. 30, according to government figures. He, like many others, is also
an unexpected throwback to a time that experts thought had long passed:
the era when Cubans boarded homemade vessels built from old car parts
and inner tubes, hoping for calm seas and favorable winds. As the number
of Cubans attempting the voyage nearly doubled in the past two years,
the number of vessels unfit for the dangerous 90-mile crossing also climbed.

Not since the rafter crisis of 1994 has the United States received so
many Cuban migrants. The increase highlights the consequences of a
United States immigration policy that gives preferential treatment to
Cubans and recent reforms on the island that loosened travel
restrictions, and it puts a harsh spotlight on the growing frustration
of a post-Fidel Castro Cuba.

More Cubans took to the sea last year than in any year since 2008, when
Raúl Castro officially took power and the nation hummed with
anticipation. Some experts fear that the recent spike in migration could
be a harbinger of a mass exodus, and they caution that the unseaworthy
vessels have already left a trail of deaths.

“I believe there is a silent massive exodus,” said Ramón Saúl Sánchez,
an exile leader in Miami who has helped families of those who died at
sea. “We are back to those times, like in 1994, when people built little
floating devices and took to the ocean, whether they had relatives here
or not.”

Although the number migrating by sea hardly compares with the summer of
1994, Mr. Sánchez said the number of illegal and legal Cuban immigrants
combined has now surpassed the number of those who arrived during the
crisis 20 years ago.

The United States Coast Guard spotted 3,722 Cubans in the past year,
almost double the number who were intercepted in 2012. Under the
migration accord signed after the 1994 crisis, those captured at sea are
sent back to Cuba. Those who reach land get to stay, which the Cuban
government has long argued draws many people into making the dangerous

For the past 10 years, sophisticated smuggling networks were responsible
for the vast majority of Cuban migration. A crackdown by the American
authorities and a lack of financing available to Cubans on the island
have shifted the migration method back to what it was two decades ago,
when images of desperate people aboard floating wooden planks gave Cuban
migrants the “rafters” moniker.

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“We have seen vessels made out of Styrofoam and some made out of inner
tubes,” said Cmdr. Timothy Cronin, deputy chief of enforcement for the
Coast Guard’s Miami district. “These vessels have no navigation
equipment, no lifesaving equipment. They rarely have life jackets with
them. They are really unsafe.”

About 20 percent of the vessels used in 2008 were homemade, but this
past year, 87 percent of the migrants spotted at sea were riding rustic
boats that the passengers had built themselves, Coast Guard statistics show.

Julio Sánchez, 38, a welder from Havana who traveled with Mr. Heredia,
said most Cubans do not have the money to pay smugglers, and are instead
forced to spend months gathering supplies for their journey.

“In our group, some people gave ideas, some gave money and some gave
labor,” Mr. Sánchez said. The trip from a port east of Havana to an
obscure Florida key cost them a total of $5,000, a fraction of the
$200,000 or more that smugglers would have charged such a large group.

Experts said the recession cut the flow of financing for such journeys,
because it was Miami relatives who made the payments. Many of the people
arriving now — like those in Mr. Sánchez’s group — have no family in the
United States to help pay.

“If I had to save $10,000 with my monthly salary of $17, I would not get
here until I was 80 or 90 years old,” said Yannio La O, 31, an
elementary school wrestling coach who arrived in Miami last week after a
shipwreck landed him in Mexico.

He and 31 others departed from Manzanillo, in southern Cuba, in late
August on a boat they built over the course of three months. They ran
into engine trouble, and the food they brought was contaminated by a
sealant they carried aboard to patch holes in the hull. They spent 24
days lost at sea.

HA! I remember when Jean Dixon predicted all of this back in the 1960’s.
Problem is, anyone could have predicted this. And why are the…
SJJoe 7 hours ago
our immigration policy with cuba is absolute insanity: if you can set
one foot on shore you can stay but if you get picked up while still at…
Steve 7 hours ago
In the mid-1960’s LBJ signed the Cuban Adjustment Act into law which
allowed Cuban nationals eligibility to adjust status and a pathway to…
“Every day at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m., somebody died,” Mr. La O said.

Nine people, including a pregnant woman, died and were thrown overboard,
and six more got on inner tubes and disappeared before the Mexican Navy
rescued the survivors, Mr. Sánchez said. Two more died at shore. Mr. La
O said he survived by drinking urine and spearing fish.

Their deaths came as the United States Coast Guard found four bodies
floating in the water 23 miles east of Hollywood, Fla. Their relatives
in Miami identified their corpses by their tattoos and scars.

Mr. La O became one of the more than 22,500 Cubans who arrived in the
United States by land last fiscal year — most of them in Texas. That is
nearly double the number who did so in 2012.

Some of those migrants flew to Mexico and then requested entry at the
Texas border. Relaxed travel rules in Cuba now allow people to exit the
country more freely, a change that experts say plays a part in the surge
in Southwest border arrivals. Other people, like Mr. La O, made the
first leg of the journey by sea to Central America or Mexico.

Ted Henken, a Cuba scholar at Baruch College in New York, said
Washington should be worried about the increase in migration, because it
demonstrates that Cuba’s recent economic reforms have failed to help the
majority of Cubans, making the nation vulnerable to a catastrophic event.

“If some triggering event or series of events were to happen, like with
the Venezuela aid or major unrest, or a hurricane, we could have another
‘balsero’ crisis or Mariel,” Mr. Henken said, using the Spanish word for
“rafter” and noting the 1980 boatlift.

A spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington did not
respond to a request for comment.

Michael Flanagan, the deputy chief patrol agent for the United States
Border Patrol’s Miami sector, said good weather, particularly the lack
of hurricanes in recent years, has played a part in facilitating travel.
Although the 91 percent increase in Cuban landings was “significant and
it has our attention,” he said, it was not “remarkable.”

“Even if half the people who leave from Cuba do not survive, that means
half of them did,” Mr. La O said, speaking from his grandmother’s house
in Miami, where he arrived last week. “I would tell anyone in Cuba to
come. It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.”

Source: In Rickety Boats, Cuban Migrants Again Flee to U.S. – –

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