More Cuban migrants risk it all to get to U.S. during crisis, experts say

MIAMI – Willy Allen, an immigration attorney, said the history of the Cuban rafters has been cyclical. It is tied to the pressures Cubans are experiencing on the island, and he has noticed the rising trend.

“Since January, I have had nearly a dozen people hire me who came by boat who actually landed in Florida, didn’t surrender to the authorities but came to my office to seek asylum,” Allen said.

He said it pained him to learn about the most recent tragedy at sea. The U.S. Coast Guard found two bodies, eight survivors and is searching for 10 who vanished. Their boat sailed out of Puerto de Mariel on Sunday and capsized on Wednesday evening.

“Almost every year we have a tragedy like this,” Allen said.

The U.S. Border Patrol released this photograph of migrants' makeshift vessel. (Copyright 2020 by WPLG - All rights reserved.)

Since October of last year, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted 250 Cuban migrants. That is about five times more migrants than in the fiscal year 2020 when they intercepted 49 Cuban migrants. This year is also likely to surpass the fiscal year 2019 when the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted 313 Cuban migrants.

Just this month alone, there have been three reported interceptions of Cuban migrants at sea. Oftentimes, Cubans are risking their lives in crowded, rickety boats. U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Brandon Earhart said the makeshift boats are unsafe.

“A lot of those boats are not designed to be seaworthy,” Earhart said. “They’re not designed for these long trips.”

U.S. Coast Guard intercepts migrants heading to Florida. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Andy Gomez, a former University of Miami professor of Cuban studies, said we are likely witnessing a new uptick in Cuban migration. He said it’s reminiscent of the rafter crisis of the 1990s following the island’s worst economic collapse since the 1959 revolution.

“The economic conditions in Cuba today are probably worse than even during the special period,” Gomez said.

Cuba’s inefficient economy was already struggling when former President Donald Trump tightened U.S. sanctions. Cuba’s tourism industry took a direct hit and this represents a significant source of income for the Cuban government. Then, the global coronavirus pandemic deepened the crisis.

Cuban migrant interceptions at sea (Copyright 2020 by WPLG - All rights reserved.)

Cubans are struggling with shortages. Relatives in South Florida have had to find ways to send money to other countries to then have someone send it to Cuba. But even with the cash, Cubans are sometimes unable to find the basics. Their options are limited.

“It’s desperation, just trying to get out of the island,” Gomez said.

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About the Authors:

In January 2017, Hatzel Vela became the first local television journalist in the country to move to Cuba and cover the island from the inside. During his time living and working in Cuba, he covered some of the most significant stories in a post-Fidel Castro Cuba. 

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.