Cuban Rafters Still Attempt Difficult Journey To The U.S.

fromWLRN

This month is the 20th anniversary of the Cuban refugee exodus when 35,000 Cubans fled on rafts to the U.S. There's been a spike this year in Cubans risking their lives on rafts to reach the U.S.

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When we reported from Cuba this summer, some people on the island told us they are frustrated by the pace of economic change. It's possible to start a business, but there are obstacles. Wages are so astonishingly low, which explains what's happening in Florida. A growing number of Cubans are arriving on homemade rafts. It's not like 20 years ago when 35,000 Cubans made the dangerous voyage. But there is a surge now. Tim Padgett from member station WLRN in Miami reports.

TIM PADGETT, BYLINE: At the nonprofit Church World Service facility in Miami, Cuban immigrants stream in and out of cubicles getting their papers in order. One of them just got off the boat two weeks ago.

JOSE: (Foreign language spoken).

PADGETT: Jose got here the hard way, on a homemade raft across the treacherous Florida straits. Jose is from the city of Santiago in eastern Cuba. He asked that we not use his last name to protect his family back home. Jose is 35 years old, fit and bright. But as a security guard, he made just 1$0 a month.

JOSE: (Through translator) You feel like a needy person every day in Cuba. Your kids never have enough to eat or clothes to wear. Leaving was the only thing I could do for them.

PADGETT: So he spent eight months building a raft from wood, plastic foam and motor parts. He and 20 others put it to sea off Havana before dawn on August 17. During the 36-hour journey, they ran into a fierce storm and seven-foot high waves. Jose was sure they'd be thrown into the sea and to the sharks. What he feared most was being picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard. Under the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy for Cuban immigrants, if rafters make it to dry land in the U.S., they can stay here. If they're picked up at sea, they're sent back to Communist Cuba and often put in jail for leaving the island illegally.

JOSE: (Through translator) Facing the Cuban justice system is worse than facing sharks.

PADGETT: Jose escaped both and made it to the Florida Keys. Cuban rafters, known as Balseros, flee to the U.S. every summer when the sea is warm enough to survive the journey. But this year, the influx is unusually large.

CAPTAIN MARK FEDOR: We're seeing the highest rates we've seen in the past five years.

PADGETT: Captain Mark Fedor is with the Coast Guard in Miami, which has intercepted more than 3,000 Balseros this year. That's double the number at this point last year.

FEDOR: We're challenged because when we do recover them at sea, we provide basic humanitarian care, and then they're entitled to a screening from a Citizenship and Immigration official. So that's all done at sea, so it's a challenge for our crews to just keep up with the pace.

PADGETT: But why such a spike in the number of rafters now? After all, since last year, Cuba has allowed people to freely travel abroad. Oscar Rivera, who heads Church World Service in Miami, says Cuba's economic reforms have so far failed to deliver. In fact, they've left many Cubans feeling poorer.

OSCAR RIVERA: They got some false hopes when the changes were introduced a few years ago. But as time goes by, they see that there's no difference in the way that they're still being controlled.

PADGETT: Immigrant advocates like Rivera also complain that when it comes to issuing U.S. visas, Washington favors Cubans who have family here. So most Cubans, like Jose, have few means of exit besides a raft.

RIVERA: I think there needs to be a way that we can maybe help these folks be able to come in a more organized way.

PADGETT: No one knows how many Balseros have made it ashore this year. But organizations like Church World Service say they are processing twice as many rafters for resettlement, job placement and other aid. The more serious question is how many rafters are dying at sea. It's estimated that almost half drown or are killed by sharks.

For a man who just made it to freedom, Jose wears a grave and exhausted face. All that concerns him now is getting a job and getting his family here.

JOSE: (Through translator) I feel divorced from reality because in Cuba, this is something you dream about day by day.

PADGETT: He says making it to this country is still worth the risk it was 20 years ago. For NPR News, I'm Tim Padgett.

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