Cuban Migration to U.S. Hits 10-Year High
By CURT ANDERSON, Associated Press WriterSun Oct 9, 8:01 AM ET
The number of Cubans caught this year trying to make the risky voyage across the Florida Straits to the United States -- whether by puttering homemade boats or speedy smuggler's bosts -- reached a 10-year high. There was a significant increase this year in Cubans who made it to U.S. shores as well.
While no mass migration appears on the horizon, Cuba experts and U.S. officials say Cubans increasingly take to the ocean to flee the island run by communist President Fidel Castro because of chronic economic hardship, repression of political dissent and a hard-line bureaucracy that makes it difficult for even some legal migrants to leave.
"Something has to be happening that people would prefer to risk death rather than continue living there," said Ramon Sanchez, founder of the Cuban exile group Democracy Movement. "People just get so fed up with the system, they leave and risk their lives on the high seas."
During the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, the Coast Guard intercepted 2,712 Cubans trying to reach the United States. That compares with only 1,225 during the same period in 2004 and is by far the most since 1994, the year a massive Cuban exodus led to a new agreement for more orderly migration between Cuba and the United States.
Over the same time frame, 2,530 Cubans made it to U.S. shores, more than double the 954 who arrived in 2004, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.
Under the U.S. "wet foot/dry foot" policy, Cubans who are interdicted at sea are generally returned to Cuba, while those who reach U.S. shores are usually allowed to stay after they have been in the United States for at least a year.
Cuban authorities in the past have said that U.S. policy acts as an enticement for its citizens to emigrate and has blamed past migration increases on growth in the human smuggling trade. Cuban officials in Havana said this week they are studying the new migration patterns and that the Castro government would have no comment on the 2005 increases until the analysis is finished.
The Coast Guard attributes at least part of the 2005 increase to improved interdiction efforts spurred by the focus on border security in the aftermath of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Creation of the Homeland Security Department included the Coast Guard with such agencies as the Border Patrol and Customs, which have their own aircraft and marine patrols.
"That's an additional set of eyes that we have," said Coast Guard spokesman Luis Diaz. "We all have a new No. 1 priority, which is protecting our shores. We are all on the same page now, and I firmly believe that is working much better."
In its annual report on Cuban migration, the U.S. State Department said the main reason for the surge is the continued poor economic conditions in Cuba — which is still recovering from the loss of billions of dollars in aid following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Damian Fernandez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, said many Cubans are stuck in low-paying jobs with no opportunity to start a small business that might improve their financial future.
"The Cuban economy has stalled and there are absolutely no signs of hope for most Cubans on the island," Fernandez said.
The State Department gave other explanations for the 2005 increase in Cuban migrants, including mild weather in the Florida Straits during the winter months and "pent-up demand" following the active 2004 tropical storm season in which Florida was lashed by four hurricanes.
Still other reasons involve obstacles that U.S. officials say Cuba uses to hinder people from legally immigrating, forcing some to try illegal means.
"Castro is not granting Cubans their U.S. legally approved visas to come to this country and, in acts of desperation, they are risking their lives to join their families," said Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (news, bio, voting record), a senior member of the House International Relations Committee. "This mode of entry is fraught with danger and too many have already died."
That danger was underscored on Aug. 24 when a smuggler's speedboat carrying 31 people capsized in the waters north of Matanzas, Cuba. Three badly burned survivors were rescued by a merchant ship but the Coast Guard was unable to locate any of the others on board.
Under the 1994 migration agreement, up to 20,000 Cubans each year may legally leave for the United States under a lottery system. Yet some people who get U.S. visas are denied exit permits by Cuban officials who arbitrarily deem them "defectors," according to the State Department. Cuba also regularly refuses to allow doctors and other medical professionals to leave even if they have visas.
The Cuban government "imposes nearly insurmountable obstacles to emigration to the United States for medical professionals," the State Department report said.
The Castro government has previously accused the United States of exaggerating the number of Cubans denied permission to emigrate.
Cuba also collects an estimated $12 million (euro9.88 million) each year in fees for exit permits and medical examinations that some U.S.-bound migrants have difficulty paying, according to the State Department.
The U.S. government says it has evidence that Cuba retaliates against migrants who are returned after they are caught attempting to make the ocean crossing. Doctors have been demoted or forced to work in remote locations; teachers are "deemed untrustworthy" and made to become janitors in their former schools.
Associated Press writer Anita Snow in Havana contributed to this story.