José has experienced policy failure both communist and capitalist.
José asked that I not use his last name to protect his family back home in Cuba. He arrived in Florida two weeks ago on a homemade raft, the kind of illegal exit that makes you a counter-revolutionary – a gusano, or worm – in the eyes of the communist dictatorship there.
Economic despair in Cuba was the main thing that compelled José to float away. “Every day you feel like a needy person,” he told me.
But José also said things could have been different if he'd had family in the United States and the financial means for self-employment. So could a different U.S. approach to Cuba have been a help in that regard?
It’s an important question – and not only because this summer marks the 20th anniversary of the most massive exodus ever of Cuban rafters, or balseros, when 35,000 bolted the island.
This summer itself is a reminder that those journeys across the treacherous Florida Straits are hardly a thing of the past. The U.S. Coast Guard has picked up more than 3,000 balseros this year, twice the number last year, while many more have either made it here or perished en route.
“We’re seeing the highest rates we’ve seen in five years,” says Capt. Mark Fedor, Coast Guard chief of response in Miami. “It’s a challenge for our crews just to keep up with the pace.”
Cubans like José, a fit and bright 35-year-old who hails from Santiago in eastern Cuba, hope to find work that pays more than the meager $10-a-month he made as a government security guard there.
“Your kids never have enough to eat or clothes to wear,” he says. “Leaving was the only thing I could do for them.”
So José and 20 other Cubans spent eight months collecting wood, plastic foam and engine parts to build a motorized raft. At 3 a.m. on August 17 they put it to sea off Havana.
During the 36-hour journey José says they ran into a fierce storm and seven-foot-high waves. He was sure they’d be thrown into the ocean – and to the sharks.
But what he feared most, he says, was being plucked by the U.S. Coast Guard. Under the controversial “wet foot-dry foot” policy for Cuban immigrants, if rafters make it to dry land in the U.S. they can stay here. If they’re intercepted at sea, they’re sent back to communist Cuba – and often put in jail there for leaving the island illegally.
“Facing the Cuban justice system,” says José, “is worse than facing sharks.”
José escaped both – and the raft made it to the Dry Tortugas off Key West.
It’s common for Cuban rafters – known as balseros – to head for Florida every summer when the sea is warm enough to survive the voyage. But why such a spike in their numbers now? After all, since last year Cuba has allowed people to freely travel abroad.
Oscar Rivera, who heads the Miami office of the non-profit Church World Service, where José is getting aid, says balseros most often tell his staff they’re leaving because of dashed expectations. Cuba’s economic reforms were supposed to produce a budding private sector; but so far they’ve left many Cubans feeling poorer.
“They got some false hopes when the changes were introduced a few years ago,” says Rivera. “But as time goes by they see there’s no difference in the way they’re still being controlled.”
RELATIVES AND REMITTANCES
But Rivera notes that another key factor is whether Cubans have family in the U.S. – folks who last year sent almost $3 billion in remittances to relatives in Cuba. Those who do have an easier time starting private businesses – and buying a plane ticket to Miami. Those who don’t, like José and most other Cubans, particularly Afro-Cubans, continue to get the short end of the socialist stick – and a raft as one of their only modes of transport.
What’s more, when it comes to issuing U.S. visas, Washington favors family reunification, once again leaving a majority of Cubans in the cold.
So while the communist regime’s economic incompetence (not to mention its political repression) is mostly to blame for pushing so many Cubans out to sea, immigration advocates and balseros alike say U.S. policy plays a role as well.
Washington needs to be more clued in to the stark and growing social division in Cuba between those with dollarized kin abroad and those without, and adjust the visa process accordingly. Just as important, it needs to relax the trade embargo against Cuba and let Americans funnel business seed money to those without.
“If you don’t have relatives in the U.S.,” says José, “you feel pretty abandoned in terms of visa applications and resources.”
To help tamp down the number of rafts, capitalism needs to step up.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.