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Crews search for 10 Cuban migrants missing in boat tragedy off Key West

More Cubans are risking their lives to flee the island nation after the coronavirus pandemic wrecked its economy.
A U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat approaches people in the water about 16 miles south of Key West on Thursday. Two people died when a boat flipped over the night before. The Coast Guard rescued eight people, but 10 people remained missing. The people are Cubans who were attempting to migrate to the United States.
A U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat approaches people in the water about 16 miles south of Key West on Thursday. Two people died when a boat flipped over the night before. The Coast Guard rescued eight people, but 10 people remained missing. The people are Cubans who were attempting to migrate to the United States. [ Coast Guard ]
Published May 30
Updated May 30

As Cuba descends into one of the worst economic crises since the beginning of the Castro revolution, its people are escaping in greater numbers on dangerous journeys to the United States and encountering disasters on the high seas.

In the latest calamity, two Cuban migrants died and 10 others were missing after their boat capsized in the Florida Straits south of Key West this week, while the U.S. Coast Guard rescued eight survivors Thursday and continued their search mission Friday.

The tragedy mirrored the loss of as many as 17 Cubans fleeing in a rickety boat last November, when the number of migrant crossings began to escalate during the island nation’s meltdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Loved ones of the recent missing migrants, who had departed from Puerto de Mariel, Cuba, on Sunday, were still clinging to the slim hope that they would be rescued.

“The families are going crazy,” said Raul Capote, 35, who moved to Miami from Mariel 15 years ago. “It’s a big community around here. A lot of people here know the people who were in the boat. We are a lot like family.”

Capote said family members and friends in Mariel have been reaching out to him continuously since the news broke Thursday of the tragedy at sea. The migrants’ boat capsized Wednesday night and has not been found.

“I really don’t know what to tell them,” he said.

No description of the boat that sank

Petty Officer Jose Hernandez, a Coast Guard spokesman, said there is still no description of the boat that sank.

Despite a U.S. policy change that no longer allows Cuban migrants to stay in the United States after reaching its shores, rising numbers are pursuing the risky trek across the Florida Straits in makeshift, unseaworthy vessels.

According to the Coast Guard, many more Cubans are taking their chances with the treacherous journey this year than last year.

The federal government tracks migration attempts by fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. With seven months to go this fiscal year, the Coast Guard says it has already stopped 298 people from Cuba at sea, compared to 49 in all of fiscal year 2020.

This recent wave appears to be caused by a combination of the deteriorating economic situation on the island and a lack of legal channels for migration. Those conditions have preceded every migrant crisis in the past, starting with the Camarioca boatlift in 1965 after Fidel Castro’s rise to power six years earlier, said William LeoGrande, a professor at American University in Washington and an expert on Latin America.

“Things are extremely hard right now, with a terrible shortage of food and medicine,” LeoGrande said. “The government has very little in the way of foreign currency to be able to import things. And if you look at the list of Cuban imports, right there close to the top is food, medicine and fuel.”

Critics of the Cuban government place the blame directly on the communist regime, which they say is not only clamping down harshly on dissent within the country but also mishandling the economy and COVID-19 pandemic.

Cuban economy hurt by coronavirus pandemic

Cuba’s economy is mired in deep trouble after pandemic lockdown measures extinguished its tourism industry and drastically reduced revenue. Before the pandemic, the island nation was already reeling from general government mismanagement and tighter sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, including restrictions on remittances.

The elimination of a dual-currency system, which was approved a decade ago but only implemented this year, has led to a spike in inflation; meanwhile, salaries have not risen at the same rate. Empty shelves at state-run supermarkets and rising COVID-19 cases are fueling desperation, as Cuba’s incipient civil society is using social media to voice opposition to the one-party communist regime.

“Unfortunately, for the last 60 years, this tragedy has been a constant for the Cuban people. This is because the Cuban regime not only executes people, but it also kills the hopes of the people, who see no other choice but to take to the ocean,” said Ramón Saúl Sánchez, leader of the Miami-based group Democracy Movement, or Movimiento Democracia.

“There is a silent exodus taking place that is increasing,” he said.

On a separate track this past week, another group of 11 migrants set out from Cuba to cross the Florida Straits. But their raft capsized, and they lost food, water and medication, the Coast Guard said.

When they finally made it to the waters off Alligator Reef Light in Islamorada last Saturday, there were 10 people alive. One man died during the voyage.

Another migrant boat was stopped in the waters off the Florida Keys by the Coast Guard. On Monday, 21 Cuban migrants were repatriated to their homeland.

And last November, a group of up to 17 Cuban migrants left northwestern Cuba, but they have not been seen or heard from again. The Coast Guard began searching for the group on Nov. 10 before calling off the rescue effort eight days later.

Sánchez, the Democracy Movement leader, urged Cubans not to take their chances on the perilous voyage — not only because of the great risks but also because there is no legal incentive to do so anymore since the U.S. ended its “wet foot, dry foot” policy in the beginning of 2017.

Change in U.S.-Cuba immigration policy

Under the old policy, Cuba migrants caught at sea trying to reach the United States were sent back to Cuba. However, those who stepped foot on U.S. soil above the high-water mark could stay and apply for permanent residence after a year and a day.

For years, this special immigration law fueled Cuba-Florida migration across the straits, a route with a deadly history. In March 2016, on the eve of former President Barack Obama’s historic visit to the island, 18 Cubans were rescued by a Royal Caribbean ship about 130 miles from the Florida coast. They were in a 30-foot boat and told authorities that nine fellow migrants had died during the 22-day journey from Cuba.

Elian Gonzalez, who at 5 years old was found floating on an inner tube in the open sea on Thanksgiving Day in 1999, survived a tragic crossing: The small aluminum boat that initially carried 14 people from Cuba, including his mother, broke up and took on water. His mother perished along with 10 others, leading to a highly politicized custody battle between Elián’s relatives in Miami and his father in Cuba. The boy, who was allowed temporarily into the United States, returned with his father to Cuba.

Cuban rafters still seeking escape to U.S.

Now, under the new immigration policy for Cubans, anyone caught at sea or on land is sent back to Cuba, unless they apply for asylum and can prove they are being persecuted by the Cuban government.

Despite the new reality, many Cubans are still seeking to escape to the United States — although nothing remotely like the mass Cuban migrations during the 1980 Mariel boatlift and the 1994 rafter exodus.

The Coast Guard search for the 10 missing Cuban migrants in the Florida Straits will continue through the Memorial Day holiday weekend. Other agencies, including the U.S. Navy, Customs and Border Protection, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, are assisting in the search.

So far, the Coast Guard said the search has covered about 6,552 square miles, roughly the size of the state of Hawaii.

The tragic incident is not being treated as an alien smuggling operation, according to federal authorities. No criminal investigation has been opened, they said.

It remains to be seen whether the eight Cubans rescued Thursday will be granted humanitarian visas to stay in the United States, authorities said.