Desperate Cubans Brave Sea to Flee Covid—and Island’s Unrest

On July 6, as Hurricane Elsa roared toward Florida, five Cuban men on a rickety, wooden boat went ashore about 18 miles north of Miami. After days at sea, some of the refugees clapped in relief as they disembarked.

Hours later, the U.S. Coast Guard was rushing to save another Cuban group whose vessel, sailing in the storm’s path, had capsized off Key West the night before. Thirteen survivors were pulled from the water. Nine were never found.

The sudden surge in balseros, or rafters, setting sail for the South Florida shore is -- like the spontaneous protests that broke out in Havana last weekend -- a sign that living conditions on the communist island are rapidly deteriorating 16 months into the pandemic. An untamed Covid outbreak is racing through the island, deepening an economic crisis that began when the regime’s longtime benefactor, Venezuela, scaled back its financial support following the 2014 oil price collapse.

Already in 2021, the U.S. has seen an 11-fold jump in desperate Cuban emigres braving sharks, smugglers and tropical storms for a chance at a new life. Authorities are bracing for even more.

“The transit is dangerous and unforgiving,” Rear Admiral Eric Jones, head of the Coast Guard’s Seventh District, warned in a video released following this weekend’s protests. “Please don’t take to the sea.”

Desperate Cubans Brave Sea to Flee Covid—and Island’s Unrest

Florida’s southernmost tip is just 90 miles from Cuba’s beaches. That seemingly short distance has long enticed the balseros who often use precarious, homemade boats to flee repression and economic pain caused by years of mismanagement and crushing U.S. sanctions. Since revolutionary forces led by Fidel Castro took power in 1959, tens of thousands have made the journey. It’s impossible to gauge exactly how many have died trying.

Desperate Cubans Brave Sea to Flee Covid—and Island’s Unrest

Most Cuban migration has shifted to land in recent years. Enlisting smugglers and tapping the financial support of relatives abroad, Cubans make long and arduous journeys to the U.S. border. They often begin their trek in Central or South American countries with lax visa policies, and push north.

The U.S. government counts migration using a fiscal year that begins in October. Already this fiscal year, 22,723 Cuban migrants have been apprehended on the southwest border, up from 13,410 in 2020 and 11,645 in 2019.

Desperate Cubans Brave Sea to Flee Covid—and Island’s Unrest

The most desperate brave the waters.

In fiscal 2016, the Coast Guard apprehended 5,396 migrants. The following year, in one of the last acts of his presidency, Barack Obama eliminated the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy, which granted Cubans a path to citizenship if they reached U.S. soil. Apprehensions plummeted, with only 49 last year.

But since October, 554 Cubans have been caught at sea. Jorge Duany, Director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, says the upsurge reflects growing desperation and discontent.

“I now see it as a growing sign of what happened on Sunday,” he said, when thousands of demonstrators poured into streets, enraged over rising prices, lack of staples and rolling blackouts.

The nation is passing through an era of rapid change after decades of stasis. Fidel Castro ruled Cuba for over half a century until 2008, when he stepped down as president and handed power to his brother, Raul. Fidel Castro died in 2016, and Raul, 90, quit as president in 2018. Miguel Diaz-Canel, a career technocrat and Communist Party loyalist now runs the country of 11 million.

Desperate Cubans Brave Sea to Flee Covid—and Island’s Unrest

The pandemic ravaged state coffers, depriving Cuba of all-important tourist revenue. Prior to that, the Trump administration tightened the six-decade-old trade embargo, with measures that included banning remittances from the U.S. -- another key lifeline. In all, the economy shrank 11% in 2020, a collapse not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Already, many Cubans were struggling to find a legal path to the U.S., after the Embassy in Havana stopped processing visas and reduced staff in 2017 in response to diplomats suffering ailments from mysterious sonic attacks. Covid reduced flights further. Then came this week’s street protests, and a swift crackdown by the regime.

It all “makes it very difficult, very tough, for ordinary Cubans to survive,” said Duany.

Now, some policymakers worry that street action could turn into chaotic exodus, like the mass departures from the port of Mariel in 1980. In 1994, facing riots spurred by economic hardship, Castro allowed dissidents to leave. Some 32,000 rafters headed stateside, prompting the now-ended wet-foot, dry-foot policy.

Desperate Cubans Brave Sea to Flee Covid—and Island’s Unrest

On Tuesday, Florida Senator Marco Rubio warned that the Cuban government was likely to encourage a “rafter or Mariel style” mass-migration crisis.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas made clear that same day that anyone fleeing crises in Cuba and Haiti, which has been thrown into a power vacuum after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise last week, would not be given refuge.

“Any migrant intercepted at sea will not be permitted to enter the United States,” he said, adding that the Coast Guard was “well-equipped” to handle a sudden surge.

But migration won’t stop, said Maureen Meyer, vice president of programs at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group.

“If you feel the need to leave, have the family support and feel the pull, there will always be a way,” she said. “Coupled with what’s going on the ground in Cuba, there’s all the more reason to go.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.