Orozco, Cuba (CNN) – The four Cuban migrants got off the US Coast Guard ship blinking and looking dazed under the blazing Caribbean sun. They risked their lives to cross the Straits of Florida to go to the United States, only to be detained at sea and returned to Cuba.
A team of Cuban officials met the migrants at a deserted and dilapidated dock some 86 kilometers west of Havana. The migrants exited the ship in plastic suits and masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, carrying their belongings in black garbage bags.
A woman was clinging to her eight-month-old daughter, whom she took with her on the dangerous and illegal journey. They took their temperature and told them they would spend the next two weeks in a Cuban government isolation center as a precaution against the pandemic.
While the immigrants were being taken to the isolation center, the coast guard ship left Cuban waters. Soon, another like this is likely to return with more would-be immigrants.
The United States and Cuba deal with the largest number of Cuban migrants leaving the island by boat since 2017, when then-President Obama, in the last days of his presidency, eliminated the “wet feet, dry feet” policy that allowed Cubans who came to the United States stay in the country.
In fiscal year 2021, the United States Coast Guard reported the interception of nearly 500 Cubans at sea. During the same period, the Miami sector of the US Border Patrol told CNN that it had apprehended 124 Cuban migrants.
In fiscal year 2019, the Coast Guard intercepted 313 Cuban migrants and in 2018 only 259.
Although the increase is much lower than the crisis of the rafters of the 90s, when thousands of Cubans jumped into the seas, or the exodus of the Mariel Boatlift, still more Cubans are now attempting the dangerous journey through the Strait of Florida.
The economy of the communist-ruled island has been affected by both the pandemic and increased sanctions imposed by the United States. The rise in illegal migration also comes at a time when relations between the United States and Cuba are at their lowest point in years. The Donald Trump administration enacted some of the toughest economic measures against Cuba in decades, and so far, the Joe Biden administration does not appear willing to lift them.
“Despite the setback in relations, the United States Coast Guard and the Border Guard maintain a cooperation that is stable and functional,” said Yoandry Castro Fernández, a major in the Cuban Border Guard, who participated in the handover. of migrants.
Many of the Cubans try to make the 90-mile journey in fragile boats, known as “rustic.”
“They really don’t meet the navigation rules,” Castro said. «They put people’s lives at risk, they have too many people on board. Then there is human trafficking with speedboats and they also overload those boats to earn more money.
US and Cuban officials claim that human smugglers charge $ 10,000 per person to get Cuban migrants off the island in crowded speedboats. Those with no relatives in Florida to pay the exorbitant smuggling fees sometimes sell everything they own.
Advertisements have started to appear on the internet in Cuba, offering houses “with everything inside.”
As Cubans face months of confinement, long lines to get food, the virtual absence of tourism, and the cut-off of family remittances from the United States, many have decided that they simply have nothing to lose.
In June, four Cuban migrants aboard a raft were rescued by Mexican fishermen after nine days at sea, when ocean currents carried them away from the United States to the Yucatan Peninsula.
In May, the United States Coast Guard recovered eight Cubans from the water and two bodies after their boat capsized near Key West. After searching an area of approximately 22,900 square kilometers by air and by sea for more than 123 hours, the Coast Guard suspended the search for another 10 missing persons, who were never found.
In April, the Coast Guard found two Cubans in the Straits of Florida trying to reach the United States aboard three paddle boards that they had tied together.
In March, at least five Cubans died after a suspected smuggler’s boat carrying about 20 people capsized on leaving the island.
Yuliet, originally from the coastal city of Caibarién, Cuba, where the residents seem to all know each other, told CNN that her brother Pedro Ángel was aboard that ship and that his body was never found.
What we want is to know. Have some news, even hard, but at least know what happened to him, “he said. “Have her body found at least.”
Cordes said his brother was hoping to go to the United States to find work and reunite with family there.
But for Cubans, traveling legally to the United States has become more complicated, if not completely impossible.
In 2017, the US embassy in Havana suspended visa services in Cuba after a series of inexplicable health incidents involving US diplomats. Now Cubans have to travel to other countries to apply for a visa to visit or emigrate to the United States. In the wake of the pandemic, applying for a U.S. visa became an even bigger ordeal after Cuba reduced international flights and many countries in the region went into quarantine.
According to figures from the US government, more than 100,000 Cubans have not been able to obtain their visas to travel to the country since September 2017, when visa services were suspended for the first time.
The Joe Biden administration is reviewing changes to Cuba policy made by former President Trump, but has also said that improving relations with Havana is not an immediate priority.
When questioned by Univisión in June about the increase in the number of Cubans leaving the island by boat, Vice President Kamala Harris said that “part of the challenge our administration has faced is that under the previous government, there were four years of deterioration of our immigration system. And for that reason, we are in the process of rebuilding it… We will always commit ourselves to being a safe haven for those fleeing danger.
But Cuban officials tell CNN that in its limited communications with US officials, the Biden administration has expressed concern about the possibility of a new raft crisis.
«They have recognized that they see the numbers, they have recognized that it is a problem. We have expressed it to him, but that is all, “said Carlos Fernández de Cossío, Director General of US Affairs of the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Amid the freezing of relations, Cossio said the US and Cuba have not met to discuss migration in almost three years.
“The trend is there,” he said. «The difficulties that Cuba has today have not been faced in more than a decade. So the recipe is there for uncontrolled migration across the ocean. Something we want to avoid, something we think we can avoid.