Tuesday, April 13, 2021
April 13, 2021

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‘I can’t buy food’: As Cuba’s economy worsens, desperate rafters risk their lives at sea

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Marisol Monteagudo’s son gave her a kiss goodbye as he headed out the door to spend a night out with friends in Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud.

What he didn’t tell her: that instead of grabbing a drink or watching a movie, they were planning to board a flimsy raft en route to Mexico.

That was three months ago. She hasn’t heard from him since.

“Only a mother can understand this pain,” Monteagudo, 62, said. “I know my son is alive. I just hope someone helps me find him.”

In recent months, U.S. Coast Guard officials have detected a new uptick in Cuban rafters, with the number intercepted at sea in the fiscal year that started in October already surpassing the total for the previous 12 months.

Though still vastly lower than previous surges, the recent increase has sparked concern that as economic and humanitarian conditions in Cuba worsen, more will risk their lives at sea. U.S. President Joe Biden’s proposal to transform the immigration system is also believed to be a driving factor.

“It’s a combination of the rising desperation of a good part of the Cuban population over deteriorating life conditions, as well as the illusion of getting to the United States under a president who is more tolerant of undocumented immigrants,” said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

According to U.S. Coast Guard figures, more than 100 Cubans have been caught at sea in the last five months, compared to 49 in all of the 2020 fiscal year.

Those rescued in recent weeks include three Cubans stranded on an island in the Bahamas for 33 days, surviving off of coconuts, rats, conch and snails. On Tuesday, authorities announced they’d rescued six men and two pregnant women aboard a raft made of Styrofoam and metal rods and apparently powered by a car engine.

“I threw myself into the sea because it’s not possible to live like this anymore,” said Beatriz, 28, who the Coast Guard found on a raft near Key West, Florida, in January. “There’s nothing in the stores and with what I earn, I can’t buy food for my daughters.”

The mother of two daughters said she boarded a raft with eight neighbors after receiving a WhatsApp message indicating the new U.S. president would allow Cubans to enter.

After being returned, Cuban authorities told her she’d be fined 10,000 pesos — the equivalent of $416 — if she tried to flee again, said Beatriz, who asked only to be identified by her first name for fear of reprisal. On a recent afternoon, she said state security officials showed up to ask the neighborhood “Revolutionary Defense Committee” about her behavior.

“It’s as bad here as it has ever been,” she said.

Cuba is in the throes of its worst economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The nation’s GDP contracted 11% last year as the nation closed its borders to international travelers and tourism plummeted as a result of the pandemic. New economic reforms designed to boost the ailing economy have increased inflation. Many Cubans now wait in long lines to buy increasingly sparse supplies of basic goods like food.

Ramon Saul Sanchez, a Cuban exile who for decades has helped the “balseros,” described the current situation as “an exodus in slow motion that each day is more visible.”

He said Coast Guard figures don’t convey the full magnitude of the situation, since those who arrive go undetected, living as undocumented residents.

In January 2017, the Obama administration ended the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy granting residency to Cubans who reached U.S. soil. The vast majority of those caught at sea are now returned, except those who can prove a well-founded fear of persecution.

“Those who reach land hide like any other undocumented migrant,” Sanchez said. “What is happening should send an alarm signal about Cuba’s situation.”

Duany said that “for the moment” he doesn’t expect to see a rise like that seen in 1994, when 35,000 people fled after Fidel Castro announced that anyone who wanted to leave could go, or in the lead-up to the end of “wet-foot, dry-foot.”

“The regime in Havana probably wouldn’t allow the flight of thousands of people without U.S. visas,” he said. “And Washington wouldn’t accept their arrival.”

For Monteagudo, the long days since her 32-year-old son’s departure have been marked by worry and futile efforts to locate her son, Yerandy Paz. His girlfriend has written to U.S. and Cuban authorities asking for their help in finding him.

“A mother will always wait,” Monteagudo said. “Gold and dollars are are worth nothing if you don’t have family and life.”

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