High-speed escape; Cuba
SECTION: THE AMERICAS
HIGHLIGHT: More Cubans flee to the United States
Greater optimism at home has not stopped the exodus to the United States
WITH Fidel Castro formally out of office and some signs of greater optimism among Cuba's citizens about the possibility of social and economic change, you might expect fewer people to risk their lives by seeking to escape the island by sea.
Not so, apparently. The number of Cubans trying to smuggle their way into America is the highest it has been for more than a decade. The United States Coast Guard says that over the past eight months 3,846 Cubans have made the trip-a 7.5% increase on last year's already high figure for the same period. Of these, around 40% (1,577) were intercepted at sea, an increase of more than a quarter. In the whole of the last (American) financial year, ending in September, 7,693 sought to flee to the United States, more than half of whom managed to avoid detection. But 3,197 were intercepted at sea, the highest number since the "rafter crisis" of 1994, when 37,000 were caught.
"There is sort of a silent exodus taking place from Cuba," says Ramón Saul Sánchez, leader of Democracy Movement, a Miami-based Cuban advocacy group. Despite the transition of power from Fidel Castro to his brother, Raúl, many Cubans have little expectation of big changes on the island. American restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba have added to their sense of desperation.
Yet the spike in the number of Cubans seeking to leave may have as much to do with an increase in organised smuggling as with economic despair. In the past, Cubans made the crossing-just over 100 miles (160km) between Havana and Key West-in home-made rafts. These days, they travel in speed boats hired in Miami by relatives paying up to $10,000 a head for the trip.
Cubans have also discovered a new route to freedom, crossing the sea to Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, then making their way overland to the border with the United States. Under American law, these so-called "wet-foot, dry-foot" Cubans are allowed to stay if they make it to their objective. Those picked up at sea are nearly always repatriated.
Until recently, the trafficking of people was virtually ignored by American officials. But prosecutors in Miami have now begun to get tough. Over the past two months, 41 Cuban-Americans have been charged with attempting to smuggle hundreds of Cubans into Florida by boat. Investigators started to pay greater attention after several drownings cast an ugly spotlight on the trade. The Coast Guard says that 36 Cubans died at sea in April alone. In one incident last November, as many as 40 people from a single village in Cuba, including a dozen children, are believed to have died. Rear-Admiral David Kunkel, the Coast Guard's district commander, recently appealed to Cuban exiles to "put the criminals who engage in human smuggling out of business by not using them".
In an attempt to stem the flow, America's State Department has accelerated its visa procedures for Cubans seeking to be reunited legally with their families in the United States. But the escalation in smuggling has had one positive outcome: American and Cuban coast-guard officials are now co-operating to try to stop the trade-one of the very few areas where the two countries do work together. "It really is in no one's interest to let this continue," said one American official.
June 14, 2008