MIAMI – One Cuban man endured a trek through eight countries that lasted more than a month. Another man paid a small fortune for a furtive speedboat trip. A third decided to risk a perilous passage aboard a homemade raft rather than stay a moment longer on the island.
Cubans are fleeing their country in the largest numbers in more than four decades, choosing to stake their lives and futures on a dangerous journey to the United States by air, land and sea to escape economic and political woes.
Most fly to Nicaragua as tourists and slowly make their way to the U.S. border, often to Texas or Arizona. A smaller number gamble on an ocean voyage. Three men who survived the odyssey spoke to The Associated Press about it.
Tens of thousands of others share the same goal. From January to July, U.S. border authorities stopped Cuban migrants entering from Mexico nearly 155,000 times, more than six times as many as in the same period of 2021. From October to August, the Coast Guard intercepted more than 4,600 Cubans, an almost sixfold increase over the entire previous year.
The vast majority are released with notices to appear in immigration court or report to immigration authorities.
In all, it is the largest flight of Cuban exiles since the Mariel boatlift in 1980, when nearly 125,000 Cubans came to the U.S. over a six-month period.
The exodus is fueled by Cuba’s worst economic conditions in decades — a result of tightened U.S. sanctions and a hangover from COVID-19.
Massive street protests in mid-2021 triggered widespread arrests and fears of political oppression that prompted more to flee. An additional enticement emerged in November, when Nicaragua stopped requiring visas for Cubans to promote tourism.
Two of the three men spoke to AP on the condition of anonymity because they fear for the safety of relatives still on the island. These are their accounts of the trip:
Crossing eight countries and two rivers
Rolando José Cisneros Borroto, who worked as a street vendor in Camaguey, a city in central Cuba, said he was tired of going hungry and decided to leave his wife and three children in hope of finding a job in the U.S that would help sustain his family.
Borroto, 42, sold everything — his house, furniture and television — to pay for the journey, collecting $13,000. His family stayed in another house that belongs to the wife.
After taking six flights, he finally arrived in Nicaragua in June. From there he went overland to Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.
He crossed two rivers on an inflatable rubber ring, walked through mountains and along highways, and got rides aboard buses, cars and motorcycles.
While hiding from Mexican police, he spent days drinking water from a river and eating only grass. He finally crossed into the U.S. south of Del Rio, Texas, and surrendered to the Border Patrol.
Borroto was released after three days of detention and now lives in Algona, Iowa, where a cousin offered him a room in his house and food. The trip lasted 36 days.
“I never thought it would take so much work to arrive,” said Borroto, who was detained at least three times in Cuba for selling garlic in the streets. “What one goes through along the way I do not advise anyone, but Cubans prefer to die on the way before staying in Cuba.”
A protest, a prosecution and a speedboat
Another Cuban man, 35, participated in protests in July 2021, when thousands of people across the island clamored for food and a change of government. He was tried on charges of public disorder and contempt and freed after 30 days in jail to await sentencing.
He fled in February, the month before he was to be sentenced to five years in prison. Air travel was out of the question because he would be stopped at the airport upon showing his passport. A raft was too dangerous.
A speedboat “was the only way to escape,” the man said in an interview at the office of his Miami attorney, Wilfredo Allen. He left the island without telling his 5-year-old daughter. Only his wife, his mother and a brother knew.
Unemployed, he asked his father, who lives in Texas, for about $15,000 to pay smugglers who gave him instructions over the phone.
Two days before the trip, he traveled 250 miles (400 kilometers) to Ciego de Avila, a city in the center of the island. From there, a bus picked him up along with 30 other people, and took them about 60 miles (100 kilometers) to one of the Cuba keys to board the speedboat. Among the migrants were a pregnant woman and a 7-year-old boy.
They passed through the Bahamas and, after 12 hours, arrived at an unknown place in the Florida Keys, at dawn. The boat stopped in a mangrove swamp. Then they came ashore, and several cars picked them up on a highway. A Cuban friend met him at a house where he was taken.
A desperate voyage on a homemade raft
Cubans who can’t afford a speedboat or the $10,000 to $15,000 for travel and smuggling fees to fly to Nicaragua sometimes flee on rafts made from pipes or wood.
Among them was a 37-year-old man who occasionally worked in construction and fished. He couldn’t pay a smuggler, so he built a raft of 10-foot aluminum tubes. In May 2021 he traveled with three friends for 22 hours until they reached south Florida.
“The first thing one thinks of is leaving, that either we all die of hunger little by little, or we make an attempt,” said the man, who secretly constructed the raft over six months. “I knew I could die in the water, but I needed to take the risk.”
He built the raft alone and kept it hidden in bushes and mangroves. The same day of the journey, he purchased a small engine that allowed him to travel at about 6 mph (10 kph).
No one knew about the trip, except his three companions, his mother and his wife. For fear of being discovered, he told his companions the date of their travel just a few hours before they left.
They departed late at night, rowing out from a fishing port west of Havana, he said in a long interview at Allen’s office. With no GPS, they navigated by the stars.
A whole day passed, and when night started to fall again, they saw the entry buoys to an island. They approached the coast and walked.
“At least we’re alive,” he thought, but they soon realized that someone was calling authorities to report them. They immediately ran back to the boat and returned to the sea, fearing that they would be detained and deported.
They waited in the water for a while and later reached a beach in Key West, where a group of Cuban tourists offered to take them to Miami. The man called his wife to tell her that he had arrived safely and was on his way to his in-laws’ house.
He is now seeking asylum and hoping to bring his wife and three teenage daughters to join him in the U.S.
Associated Press journalists Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Andrea Rodríguez in Havana contributed this report.