By Anthony Boadle
6:03 a.m. July 30, 2007
HAVANA – After a lull following Fidel Castro's illness last year, Cubans
once again are taking to homemade boats or powerful speedboats manned by
smugglers on a trip to the United States that often includes a detour
Since May, the U.S. Coast Guard has been intercepting more boat people
in precarious craft crossing the Straits of Florida in the calm summer
waters. The U.S. Border Patrol also has been processing rising numbers
turning up at the U.S. frontier with Mexico.
Cubans coming across the 90-mile gap with Florida try to make it in
anything that floats and has a motor – from a hijacked fishing boat to
an array of inner tubes tied together with a weed whacker for propeller.
For those with a relative in Miami able to pay the $8,000 fare, there
are illegal "cigarette" boats that jet in and out of the Cuban coast in
broad daylight to pick up emigres.
These racing machines cost upward of $150,000 and are built for eight to
10 passengers but often speed away jam-packed with 30 to 40 people at
their own peril.
With several 275-horsepower outboard motors, they are twice as fast as
communist Cuba's Russian-built patrol boats and give the U.S. Coast
Guard a run for their money, too.
So far this fiscal year, 2,819 Cubans have made it ashore in Florida,
compared with 3,076 in all of last year, said U.S. Customs and Border
Protection spokesman Zachary Mann.
The number of Cubans intercepted in the Florida Straits are still below
– but likely to exceed – last year's 2,810, according to the U.S. Coast
That was the highest number since the 1994 exodus when the Coast Guard
picked up more than 35,000 people floating off Cuba in all kinds of
rafts when Castro opened the doors briefly.
To avoid another rafting crisis, the United States started sending back
Cubans intercepted at sea. Under the co-called "wet-foot, dry-foot"
policy, only those who make it ashore get to stay in the United States.
Coast Guard interception figures showed fewer Cubans were leaving last
year after an ailing Castro handed over power to his brother Raul, due
either to increased coastal security at the time or potential emigres
waiting to see if things would change in Cuba after four decades of
communist rule. They didn't.
"Before there was hope of change, now there is none and many people are
leaving by boat," said Pichi, an impatient odd-job man who sees no
future in Cuba. "I know 15 people in my barrio who have left since June."
To avoid interception by the U.S. Coast Guard and forced repatriation to
Cuba, most boat people are now leaving through the Gulf of Mexico on
speedboats that ferry them 140 miles to Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. Some
also go south to the Cayman Islands, and on to Central America.
From there, they make their way north on well-trodden migrant routes to
the U.S.-Mexico border. Once they are there, the Cubans are home and dry.
Unlike illegal migrants from other countries, Cubans can present
themselves at land entry points and are automatically paroled into the
United States as political refugees.
U.S. officials say 89 percent of the Cubans emigrating illegally from
Cuba to the United States are entering by land border rather than coming
ashore from a boat.
This fiscal year up to July 26, 9,296 Cubans have entered the United
States via land entry ports, compared to 8,677 for all of fiscal 2006
and 7,281 the previous year, said Jennifer Connors, a Customs and Border
"So there's definitely an increase," she said. "We're not going to
pretend there isn't."
The United States continues to have a contingency plan for a mass
migration across the Florida Straits, Connors said, but is now adding
plans for the land border. She gave no details.
Cuba regularly denounces the U.S. "dry-foot" policy for encouraging
Cubans to emigrate illegally and risk their lives at sea. The most
publicized case was the shipwreck of Elian Gonzalez, the boy whose
mother and 11 other Cubans drowned in 1999, leaving him at the center of
a custody battle.