PERICO, Cuba Four times Maria Galban's brother Jorge tried to make the clandestine trip from Cuba to Florida and failed. Now his family fears a fifth attempt to migrate may have ended with him losing his life at sea.
Galban, his wife and two children were among around 40 Cubans who relatives and residents say left by speedboat late last month. Authorities and families have heard nothing since.
"He just wanted to be with my other brother (in the United States), as they were older than me they always wanted to be together," Galban said showing a framed photograph of her niece and nephew in Perico, a small town about 120 miles from Havana near the Varadero resort.
"They have found nothing, not a trace," she said.
Galban, 42, persisted in efforts to move to the United States despite ending up in jail in the Bahamas twice and being sent home by U.S. authorities on his previous attempts.
This time the Galbans joined hundreds of Cubans who have left since Fidel Castro temporarily handed over power to his brother Raul after emergency surgery more than 16 months ago. The Cuban leader has not appeared in public since then.
Now the number of Cubans U.S. authorities have intercepted trying to reach U.S. territory has crept to its highest since a 1994 exodus when tens of thousands fled on boats, makeshift rafts and inflated inner tubes.
Under U.S. immigration policy, Cubans intercepted at sea are returned to the island, but those who reach U.S. soil are almost always allowed to stay.
Cuba blames that "dry foot" policy for encouraging Cubans to risk their lives on vessels or smuggler boats speeding across the 90-mile strait with Florida. Critics say emigration reflects discontent over economic hardships.
In their attempted journey, the Galban family joined others from Perico and Marti in central Matanzas province, where cars and bicycles share roads cutting through cane fields and dotted with roadside billboards proclaiming revolutionary slogans.
Families of those who left say they knew little about the trip and learned about the journey only later. But all are desperate for any news of their relatives as they prepare year-end celebrations. Migrant groups rarely disappear.
"Hope is the last thing you lose, especially since they have not found even a shoe, nothing, we hope they might be on some ship or an island," said Jorge Garcia, who said his cousin and his wife also left on the missing vessel.
"We grew up together, more than my cousin, he's my brother," he said.
Cuban authorities had no comment on the case.
Smugglers on so-called "cigarette" boats dart into Cuban waters to pack on passengers whose relatives in the United States sometimes pay as much as $8,000 to get them to the U.S. coast.
According to U.S. figures, the Coast Guard intercepted 2,868 Cubans trying to get to the United States in fiscal year 2007. That is the highest since 1994 when more than 35,000 tried to reach U.S. territory.
Washington has agreed to grant 20,000 visas a year for those seeking to emigrate, but the visa process is caught in a dispute. The U.S. mission in Havana said this year consular work was being obstructed, but Cuba countered U.S. authorities were delaying visas to undermine the government.
Lt. Commander Chris O'Neil, a Coast Guard spokesman in Miami, said authorities found out about the missing vessel on December 6 after receiving calls from family members and the office of U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican.
A U.S. Coast Guard plane was diverted from its patrol to sweep for the boat, which some relatives told U.S. officials was a 33-foot twin engine craft carrying around 40 people.
O'Neil said a search turned up no debris or other sign of the vessel, and authorities had no reports of capsized boats or distress calls in the area related to the 40 people.
"It was really a hope against hope kind of effort," he said. "Once we realized that there was a likelihood of people missing at sea, we tried to develop a case. But the people who were calling us didn't give us very much information."
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)