More Cubans attempt dangerous trip to US across Florida Straits

Zuleydis Elledias has gotten up each morning for the past two months hoping for a phone call, a message — any news on the fate of her husband and nephew, who disappeared at sea after the boat they were in capsized as they tried to reach Florida.

Another half dozen families in the small town of Orlando Nodarse, 35 miles (55 kilometers) west of Havana and near the port of Mariel, are living with the same uncertainty.

"Due to the pandemic, my husband lost his job. Many places closed and he had been home for more than a year. Every time he went to his workplace, they told him to wait. And that made him desperate because we have a 2-year-old son," Elledias, a 38-year-old homemaker, told The Associated Press through tears.

Cuba is seeing a surge in unauthorized migration to the United States, fueled by an economic crisis exacerbated by the pandemic, increased U.S. sanctions and cutbacks in aid from its also-crisis-wracked Venezuelan ally. That has led to shortages in many goods and a series of protests that shook the island on July 11.

And legal ways to leave have been strained by the Trump administration's near-closure of the U.S. Consulate in 2017 following a series of mysterious illnesses among diplomatic personnel that some claimed could result from an attack — allegations Cuba bitterly denies.

Most Cubans who want to try for a U.S. visa now have to go to embassies in other countries — and getting there is almost impossible due to sharp cuts in air traffic during the pandemic. Most can't afford tickets anyway unless relatives abroad can front them the money.

READ Coast Guard ends search for 9 Cubans missing after boat capsized off Florida

That has pushed many Cubans to launch themselves into the sea on small boats or rafts to attempt the dangerous crossing of the Florida Straits to the United States.

The U.S. Coast Guard said recently it has intercepted 595 Cubans at sea since the current fiscal year started on Oct. 1. That's larger than any full fiscal year since 2017 — during which the U.S. announced that even Cubans reaching U.S. shores were likely to be expelled, ending a longstanding policy of granting asylum to those who reached dry land.

It's still small in comparison with the nearly 5,400 halted at sea in 2016 or the dramatic crises of 1994-1995 and 1980, when Cuba's government temporarily stopped trying to block departures and tens of thousands set out en masse. Thousands died in the ocean.

It's also still far smaller than the current flow of those who have somehow made their way to the continent and worked their way north. The U.S. Border Patrol had recorded 26,196 Cubans trying to enter the U.S. without documents between Oct. 1 and June 30, most by land.

As well as her husband — 45-year-old driver Fernando Quiñones — Elledias is also awaiting word on her nephew, Ismel Reyes, 22, who worked on a farm.

They were among a group of 18 men and two women who left Cuba for Florida on May 25. The boat sank the following night and survivors were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard about 18 miles (29 kilometers) southwest of Key West. The search by sea, land and air lasted for days.

"Something happened, I don’t know, the currents, the boat flipped. The United States Coast Guard rescued eight people alive, found two bodies and there are 10 people missing," Elledias said.

READ Cuban migrants come ashore in South Florida, ask beachgoers for directions to Miami Beach

Among the survivors were four cousins of Elledias, some of whom have already been repatriated to Cuba.

Elledias, her sister Sudenis — Reyes’ mother — and other Orlando Nodarse residents who spoke with the AP all agreed that the risky decision to head for the United States was triggered by the economic crisis and the difficulties in obtaining a visa.

Cuban historian Alina Bárbara López noted that two earlier mass exoduses by sea were spawned by crises and Cuban authorities opened the borders as a kind of release valve in the face of social pressure.

In 1980, with unhappy Cubans pouring into foreign embassy compounds seeking visas, Fidel Castro opened the port at Mariel for people who wanted to leave and 125,000 Cubans rushed north, setting off a political crisis for the government of U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

The dire economic tailspin of the early 1990s following the collapse of Cuba's aid from the Soviet Union led tens of thousands to put to sea in innertubes, makeshift rafts and highjacked boats. Then too, many died.

But now Havana is "trapped" because it cannot open its borders due to migration agreements signed with Washington in the wake of that crisis, she said.

Meanwhile, Cuba's economic reforms have only been superficial, López said. The economy remains stagnant.

"All this makes the underlying political foundation of this crisis much stronger than in the previous" crises, she said.

READ Tampa protesters call for change in Cuba

Cuban authorities acknowledge there are "symptoms" of a possible migratory crisis but say it could be deactivated if President Joe Biden fulfills a campaign promise to jettison Trump's tighter sanctions, which were aimed at trying to drive the Communist Party from power, and resumes the dialogue launched by former U.S. President Barack Obama.

"The situation we have now is the result of a number of negative factors," said Jesús Perz Calderón of the United States Department at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry. "In the first place, the deterioration of the economy as a result of COVID-19 ... but at the same time the resurgence of an economic war of blockade against Cuba by the United States."

José Ramón Cabañas, a former Cuban ambassador to the U.S. and current director of the Center for International Policy Research, said both nations have instruments in place to prevent an exodus to Florida,

"There are agreements in force but they are not being fully applied," Cabañas said.

The United States had been providing 22,000 visas a year to Cuba for two decades until 2017, when Trump froze relations. The consulate shutdown made applying for a visa almost moot for most Cubans.

In addition, at the beginning of 2017, Obama eliminated the policy known as "wet foot-dry foot" that let Cubans who reached U.S. shores remain, usually as refugees, while those caught at sea were sent back.

Back in Orlando Nodarse, Elledias hopes a miracle will bring home her loved ones.

"I would tell people who are thinking about this option (of crossing the Florida Straits) not to do it, that it is not a safe route. There is no money in the world that can pay for this suffering we are going through," she said.

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