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Cuban Refugees Take to the Waters as Raúl Castro Ramps Up Oppression

Nearly 100 Cuban refugees reached the United States in the past week, with 51 refugees landing in the Florida Keys on Sunday alone. With the number of Cubans risking their lives on the high seas booming since President Barack Obama “normalized” relations with Cuba in 2014, officials fear a greater increase following the death of Fidel Castro.

U.S. Customs and Border Control are currently processing the multiple groups of balseros, or “rafters” as they are commonly known, who arrived in Florida this week. The 51 arriving on Sunday did so in three different groups, landing within two hours of each other. The Miami-based Martí Noticias outlet reports that there is no evidence of a human trafficking operation bringing Cubans to the United States — the groups independently organized their trips over from a variety of Cuban cities.

“Everyone was throwing up, we slept in vomit, in urine, I can’t even explain,” Evelin Basteiro, one of the Cuban refugees arriving this week, told Telemundo 51.

Miami’s El Nuevo Herald cites Coast Guard officials expressing concern that the number of Cuban refugees risking their lives to escape the increasingly oppressive reign of communist dictator Raúl Castro will keep growing as the younger Castro consolidates power in light of his elder brother Fidel’s death in November. At the very least, the number of refugees arriving in the 2016 fiscal year was 60 percent larger than that in 2015: 7,411 compared to 4,473.

The immediate numbers are not significantly larger, however, according to Coast Guard official Luis Rodríguez, who told Martí that the numbers are “not more of less, but within the historical margin of flux in December.”

In the longer term, those numbers have increased dramatically since President Obama promised to restore diplomatic relations with Havana in December 2014. The Coast Guard documented a 117 percent increase in the number of Cubans attempting the trip between December 2013 and December 2014. There has been a 350 percent increase in that number between 2010 and 2016.

Not all Cubans who attempt to navigate the Caribbean to reach Florida hit the United States. In a grim reminder of this reality, 90 Cubans currently detained in Nassau, Bahamas, have protested the inhumane conditions in which they are being kept, including being provided minimal food and no soap or hygienic needs. “We are sleeping on the floor, there are rats here, we are extremely needy and hungry,” one of those detained told Marti. While the Bahamas typically returns Cubans to the communist government, Nassau officials have yet to issue the order in this case.

“These people staying here are not like many that you are used to seeing… leaving [Cuba] for economic reasons and those things. These people are here because of political problems,” an individual close to the refugees told Martí.

These political problems appear to have been exacerbated by the death of Castro in a year where a human rights NGO dedicated to documenting political arrests predicts the number of such arrests will surpass 10,000. As it stood at the end of November, Cuban police had engaged in 9,484 politically motivated arrests, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN).

These numbers do not reflect those arrested in December for calling for change following Castro’s death, including yet another arrest of Ladies in White leader Berta Soler, who told reporters after her release that she was “dragged by one handcuff and held by the neck” to the police station. A fellow Ladies in White member, Ivonne Lemus, was “slammed onto the pavement” until she lost consciousness, Soler said.

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