Local 10 Exclusive: Inside look at dangerous sea voyage from Cuba to South Florida

Cuban exodus is ‘biggest’ since 1959, experts say

A group of Cuban migrants documented their three attempts to make a wooden boat and their voyage to the Florida Keys in videos they shared with Local 10 News.

MIAMI – More and more people from Cuba and Haiti are risking their lives at sea to get to the United States.

Yuri Sanabria said she was part of a group of 19 that used hand saws and pieces of reclaimed wood to build a boat they would use to escape.

She said the she and others hid in the wilderness near Matanzas, a city on the northern shore of the island, to finish the vessel.

They survived on lobster and giant rats cooked as dinner before pushing off into open water.

Sanabria said she was forced to leave her 2-year-old daughter behind in Cuba. On the six-day voyage, the group had to bail out water from the boat, which was equipped with a forklift motor.

The perilous voyage ended near Sombrero Beach in Marathon, when they made landfall last Thursday.

“It was really, really hard. It was horrible because it was dark and the weather wasn’t good,” Sanabria said adding, “If somebody told me it be like this, I don’t come here.”

An agent inspected the boat called the “Triunfador” -- roughly translated as “The Winner” -- after the migrants made landfall.

“In the roughness of the seas with no active fuel pump, a good possibility the engine would bog down and run out,” the agent said. “That’s an indicator of the desperation.”

Michael Bustamante, a historian at the University of Miami, and Andy Gomez, an expert on post-Fidel Castro Cuba, said there is an ongoing immigration crisis that is going largely ignored.

“It’s the biggest, most intense out-migration for sure,” Bustamante said about the comparative data on Cuban immigration since 1959.

Migrants wait in a fishing boat, about 10 miles south of Key Colony Beach, on Aug. 13, 2022. The Coast Guard repatriated the Cuban migrants on Aug. 16. (Coast Guard)

U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s latest data shows there have been nearly 177,850 encounters with Cuban migrants nationwide since October. It’s a sharp increase from the nearly 53,320 Cuban migrants intercepted during the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years.

“18 Cuban migrants were taken into #BorderPatrol custody today after making landfall on a wooden vessel in the Marquesas Keys, an uninhabited island west of Key West. The migrants were stranded on an island & rescued by @USCGSoutheast,” U.S. Border Patrol Chief Patrol Agent Walter N. Slosa wrote on Twitter Wednesday.

A group of 31 made landfall in the Marquesas Keys on Thursday.

The latest U.S. Coast Guard data also shows crews have interdicted nearly 4,000 Cuban migrants at sea since October when they had just intercepted about 890 during the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine operations aircrew alerted Sector Key West watchstanders of this fishing boat about 30 miles south of Long Key, Florida, Aug. 14, 2022. The Coast Guard repatriated the Cuban migrants on Aug. 16. (Coast Guard)

A spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council in Washington, D.C., said human smugglers are lying to take advantage of vulnerable migrants for their own financial gain.

President Joe Biden announced during the Summit of the Americas that the U.S. has been leading a campaign against human smuggling networks and secured “record levels of funding” for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, according to NSC.

“We will continue to urge individuals to not risk their lives at the hands of human smugglers and take the dangerous, and sometimes deadly, journey. As has been the case, those without a legal basis to remain in the United States will be removed,” the NSC spokesperson said.

A good Samaritan notified Sector Key West watchstanders of this rustic vessel about 7 miles south of Key West, Florida, Aug. 3, 2022. The Coast Guard repatriated the Cuban migrants on Aug. 5, 2022. (Coast Guard)

In Miami-Dade, Gomez said the Cuban exodus is predictable amid the economic crisis on the island. He said Cuban government officials’ policies are encouraging the exodus and this shouldn’t be surprising since they have done it before.

“That is fewer people that they need to worry about,” Gomez said referring to the budget for food, housing, healthcare, and more.

After Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega lifted the visa requirement for Cubans late last year, he made it easier for Cuban migrants to fly from Havana to Managua to make their journey to the U.S.-Mexico border.

A good Samaritan notified Sector Key West watchstanders of this rustic vessel about 5 miles south of Key Colony Beach, Florida, Aug. 2, 2022. The Cuban migrants were repatriated on Aug. 5, 2022. (Coast Guard)

Alain Lambert, better known on social media as the Paparazzi Cubano, is among the Cuban migrants who have fled through Central America after participating in the July 11, 2021 protests that prompted a new wave of much younger political prisoners.

Lambert recently reported that he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border through the Río Bravo and flew to South Florida with his daughter, wife, and brother. He visited Versailles on Tuesday in Miami’s Little Havana.

“The youth no longer believes in that dictatorship,” Lambert said in Spanish.

U.S. Border Patrol agents processed migrants like Lambert and Sanabria by collecting biometrics to search databases for criminal records. They are supposed to meet with immigration authorities. Sanabria said she will do so in September. Their hope is to be able to apply for asylum so they can stay in the United States.

Watch the 4 p.m. report

Michael Bustamante, a historian at the University of Miami, and Andy Gomez, an expert on post-Fidel Castro Cuba, said there is an ongoing immigration crisis that is going largely ignored.

A look at the data

Graphic by US Border Patrol

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol data on encounters with Cuban migrants.

Interactive graphic

Watch the 6 p.m. report

More and more Cubans are risking their lives at sea to get to the United States. Michael Bustamante, a historian at the University of Miami, and Andy Gomez, an expert on post-Fidel Castro Cuba, said there is an ongoing immigration crisis that is going largely ignored.

Related social media (Spanish)


About the Authors:

Janine Stanwood joined Local 10 News in February 2004 as an assignment editor. She is now a general assignment reporter. Before moving to South Florida from her Washington home, Janine was the senior legislative correspondent for a United States senator on Capitol Hill.

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.