July 30, 2007 / 3:42 AM / in 11 years

More Cubans leaving by sea again, many to Mexico

HAVANA (Reuters) - After a lull following Fidel Castro’s illness last year, Cubans once again are taking to homemade boats or powerful speedboats manned by smugglers on a trip to the United States that often includes a detour through Mexico.

Since May, the U.S. Coast Guard has been intercepting more boat people in precarious craft crossing the Straits of Florida in the calm summer waters. The U.S. Border Patrol also has been processing rising numbers turning up at the U.S. frontier with Mexico.

Cubans coming across the 90-mile gap with Florida try to make it in anything that floats and has a motor -- from a hijacked fishing boat to an array of inner tubes tied together with a weed whacker for propeller.

For those with a relative in Miami able to pay the $8,000 fare, there are illegal “cigarette” boats that jet in and out of the Cuban coast in broad daylight to pick up emigres.

These racing machines cost upward of $150,000 and are built for eight to 10 passengers but often speed away jam-packed with 30 to 40 people at their own peril.

With several 275-horsepower outboard motors, they are twice as fast as communist Cuba’s Russian-built patrol boats and give the U.S. Coast Guard a run for their money, too.

So far this fiscal year, 2,819 Cubans have made it ashore in Florida, compared with 3,076 in all of last year, said U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Zachary Mann.

The number of Cubans intercepted in the Florida Straits are still below -- but likely to exceed -- last year’s 2,810, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

That was the highest number since the 1994 exodus when the Coast Guard picked up more than 35,000 people floating off Cuba in all kinds of rafts when Castro opened the doors briefly.

To avoid another rafting crisis, the United States started sending back Cubans intercepted at sea. Under the co-called “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy, only those who make it ashore get to stay in the United States.

Family members and friends wave to a group of rafters heading to the U.S. in Havana in this September 6, 1994 file picture. After a lull following Cuba's leader Fidel Castro's illness last year, Cubans once again are taking to homemade boats or powerful speedboats manned by smugglers on a trip to the United States that often includes a detour through Mexico. REUTERS/Stringer

Coast Guard interception figures showed fewer Cubans were leaving last year after an ailing Castro handed over power to his brother Raul, due either to increased coastal security at the time or potential emigres waiting to see if things would change in Cuba after four decades of communist rule. They didn‘t.

“Before there was hope of change, now there is none and many people are leaving by boat,” said Pichi, an impatient odd-job man who sees no future in Cuba. “I know 15 people in my barrio who have left since June.”

MEXICAN ROUTE

To avoid interception by the U.S. Coast Guard and forced repatriation to Cuba, most boat people are now leaving through the Gulf of Mexico on speedboats that ferry them 140 miles to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Some also go south to the Cayman Islands, and on to Central America.

From there, they make their way north on well-trodden migrant routes to the U.S.-Mexico border. Once they are there, the Cubans are home and dry.

Unlike illegal migrants from other countries, Cubans can present themselves at land entry points and are automatically paroled into the United States as political refugees.

U.S. officials say 89 percent of the Cubans emigrating illegally from Cuba to the United States are entering by land border rather than coming ashore from a boat.

This fiscal year up to July 26, 9,296 Cubans have entered the United States via land entry ports, compared to 8,677 for all of fiscal 2006 and 7,281 the previous year, said Jennifer Connors, a Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman.

“So there’s definitely an increase,” she said. “We’re not going to pretend there isn‘t.”

The United States continues to have a contingency plan for a mass migration across the Florida Straits, Connors said, but is now adding plans for the land border. She gave no details.

Cuba regularly denounces the U.S. “dry-foot” policy for encouraging Cubans to emigrate illegally and risk their lives at sea. The most publicized case was the shipwreck of Elian Gonzalez, the boy whose mother and 11 other Cubans drowned in 1999, leaving him at the center of a custody battle.

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