Illegal flow of Cubans to U.S. on the rise

HAVANA Mon Oct 1, 2007 3:41pm EDT

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HAVANA (Reuters) - The number of Cubans leaving their communist-run country by sea is steadily increasing and has reached the highest level since a mass exodus in 1994, according to U.S. figures released on Monday.

Fiscal 2007 figures showed that twice as many Cubans arriving in the United States without travel documents are doing so via Mexico instead of crossing the Florida Straits.

U.S. officials said good weather and calm summer waters had contributed to the rising number of Cubans departing by sea, though the absence of hope for change in Cuba in the year after Cuban leader Fidel Castro fell ill was driving more Cubans to leave.

"At bottom, the reason why people are willing to risk their lives to leave Cuba is the lack of hope and expectations," said U.S. Consul General in Havana, Sean Murphy.

The U.S. Coast Guard intercepted 2,861 Cubans crossing the Florida Straits in smugglers' speed boats or home-made craft during the fiscal year ending September 30.

But another 4,825 made it to the United States, where by law Cubans -- unlike other nationalities -- are almost automatically allowed to stay if they make it ashore.

Those two categories totaled 7,686, the highest annual figure since more than 35,000 took to the sea in the summer of 1994, at the depth of Cuba's post-Soviet crisis, to be picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard. The number was 7,088 in fiscal 2006.

In recent years, high-speed boats manned by people smugglers have become the most common way to get out of Cuba by sea, though the fare is a hefty $8,000 to $10,000 a passenger.

To avoid interception by the U.S. Coast Guard in the Florida Straits, the illegal traffic is mostly heading for Mexico. Once ashore, Cuban emigres make their way to the U.S. border where they just have to present themselves as Cuban to be allowed to enter the United States.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 11,487 Cubans entered the United States in fiscal 2007 at the Southwest border, mainly in Texas, almost twice as many as in 2005.

U.S. VISAS SHORT OF PLAN

Under agreements signed in 1994-95 and designed to avoid another mass exodus, Washington agreed to grant 20,000 visas a year to Cubans to foster safe, orderly and legal migration.

But the U.S. consulate only granted 15,000 visas in fiscal 2007 due to the lack of sufficient staff to process more travel documents, Murphy said. It has also suspended a lottery system used to select applicants for residency in the United States.

That is because the Cubans have denied the U.S. mission permission to hire adequate staff for the job, he said.

In July, Cuba accused the United States of failing to comply with the 1994-95 migration accords with the aim of destabilizing the government of acting President Raul Castro, who took over from his brother 14 months ago.

Havana says the illegal and perilous exodus by sea is encouraged by the politically motivated U.S. policy of allowing Cubans who step foot on U.S. soil to stay.

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