August 14 will mark the one-year anniversary since Secretary of State John Kerry went to Havana, Cuba to preside over the official reopening of the American embassy, followed by a visit by President Barack Obama this past March. The Obama administration has proudly touted the thawing of diplomatic relations with Cuba, but it’s been a failure by a very visible metric: the number of Cubans fleeing the island nation to come to the United States.
So far this fiscal year (since October 1, 2015), 44,353 Cubans came to the U.S., a figure that is already higher than the 40,115 Cubans who arrived during fiscal year 2015, reports el Nuevo Herald (in Spanish). This figure includes those who traveled through airports, by sea, or by land — those in the latter category usually start in Ecuador or Guyana, before making their way up through Mexico.
This recent surge of Cuban immigration actually started during the prior fiscal year. The 40,115 Cuban immigrants during fiscal year 2015 nearly doubled the 23,752 who arrived during fiscal year 2014.
The number of Cubans who made their exodus by sea is also showing a substantial increase: 5,485 so far during fiscal year 2016 (since October 1, 2015), compared to 4,473 during the entire fiscal year 2015.
The six Cubans shown in the video below were lucky. They arrived in Miami all in relatively good health, and can be seen smiling and hugging, and posing for photos with tourists. One man is overheard happily talking on a cell phone: “Estamos in South Beach!” (We’re in South Beach!”)
They’re not all so lucky.
The immigration figures are even more stark when the peril of the journey is considered. A mere 90 miles separate Florida and Cuba, but the Cubans making the journey are invariably traveling in homemade vessels that struggle in the open seas. The length of the journey is unpredictable, and Cuban refugees are often rescued dehydrated, starving, and severely sunburned. Add in sharks and the prevalence of hurricanes and other severe weather, and it’s an incredibly hazardous trip, which many Cuban refugees attempt multiple times before successfully making it to American shores.
It’s impossible to calculate how many Cubans have died attempting to get to the United States, but there are countless news reports of Cuban refugees where some or all of the group don’t survive the journey. One of the most famous was the mother of Elián González, who drowned along with ten others as they were trying to cross the Florida straits in a small aluminium boat with a faulty engine. González was originally placed with relatives in Miami but was soon put in the middle of an international custody battle and was taken from his relatives’ home by federal agents in a much-criticized early morning raid.
Let’s think about this: how bad must conditions be in Cuba if people are willing to make this dangerous journey? How miserable must life be for Elián González’s mother to get in a rickety boat with her little boy, who at the time was not yet six years old?
Part of what is driving the new wave of refugees is a fear that the U.S. will change its immigration policy. For years, Cuban immigrants have enjoyed a special status where, in addition to available immigrant visas, any Cuban who comes illegally but makes it to U.S. soil will be allowed to stay and apply for legal permanent resident status, and eventually citizenship. Under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, any Cuban intercepted at sea is sent back to Cuba or to a third country.
So far, the Obama administration has insisted that it will not change the wet foot, dry foot policy, but Cubans are clearly unconvinced. As Dagoberto Valdés, director of the Centro de Estudios Convivencia (Center for Coexistence Studies), told el Nuevo Herald, the problem is that the totalitarian system in Cuba has been in place for six decades and the recent U.S. – Cuba diplomatic relations had not yet resulted in any improvements in the “political, economic, and social situation” of the Cuban people.Babalú Blog, reporting that the U.S. Coast Guard had repatriated 151 Cubans during just a two week period this month.
American presidents attending baseball games and American tourists posing for photos in front of crumbling-but-oh-so-charming buildings have failed to improve the lives of the Cuban people, leading more and more of them to risk their lives trying to cross 90 miles of shark-infested waters.
“Even if half the people who leave from Cuba do not survive, that means half of them did,” Yannio La O told The New York Times in an interview a week after successfully making the boat trip. “I would tell anyone in Cuba to come. It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.”
Photo credit: University of Texas Moody College of Communications via Flickr.
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