U.S. News

Flow of Cubans leaving by sea rising: U.S

HAVANA (Reuters) - The number of Cubans risking their lives to leave their communist-run country illegally by sea to reach the United States is rising, U.S. officials in Havana said on Thursday.

Since October 1, 2007, 2,891 Cubans have tried to cross the Florida Straits; 1,697 made it to the United States and were allowed to stay while the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted 1,194 and sent them back.

The U.S. officials said the figures showed that average Cubans had little faith that life would improve in the one-party socialist state under President Raul Castro, who succeeded his ailing brother Fidel Castro in February.

“The numbers continue to rise. That’s the response of the Cuban people,” U.S. Interests Section chief Michael Parmly told foreign reporters. “So many of them are young people. Why do they want to leave?”

The number of people attempting the risky voyage has risen by 21 percent compared to the same period last year. The number intercepted by the Coast Guard increased by 65 percent.

Most Cubans now attempt the crossing in fast speed boats rather than the makeshift vessels seen in the past.

Cuba has long accused Washington of encouraging Cubans to risk their lives at sea by offering the prize of almost automatic residency to those who make it ashore.

U.S. officials say Cuba’s lack of political freedom and economic stagnation drives its people to leave.

Even more Cubans try to reach the United States through Mexico. Last year, 11,486 undocumented Cubans arrived at U.S. Southwest Customs and Border Patrol land ports. So far this fiscal year, which began on October 1, some 5,500 have done so.

To avoid a repeat of the 1994 mass exodus, when 35,000 Cubans headed out to sea on fishing boats, rafts and inner tubes, the U.S and Cuban governments signed migration accords under which the United States grants 20,000 visas a year to Cubans to ensure legal, orderly and safe emigration.

Illegal Cuban migration to the United States began to surge again in 2005. When Fidel Castro fell ill the next year, the flow dipped, due in part to increased security in Cuba and expectations of change.

To speed up legal migration, the United States inaugurated a Cuban family reunification program on Thursday that will cut delays in processing eligible emigres to 6 weeks from between 3 and 7 years at present.

Three families with relatives in the United States were the first to receive their travel documents in the program that could benefit 12,000 pending cases, involving an estimated 40,000 family members.

After dragging its feet for two years, Cuba’s government this month authorized the U.S. Interest Section to hire more consular staff, which will speed up visa processing.

Editing by Alan Elsner