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Cubans Still Fleeing on the High Seas, Months After Obama Nixes Wet Foot/Dry Foot

President Barack Obama’s last-minute decision to repeal the executive policy known as “Wet Foot/Dry Foot” has deterred many, but not all, Cuban nationals seeking refuge in the United States. According to the U.S. Coast Goard, dozens of Cubans have attempted the escape since their rights in the U.S. were no longer guaranteed.

Capt. Aldante Vinciguerra, chief of response for the Coast Guard 7th District, told the Associated Press that authorities had apprehended 65 Cuban nationals on the high seas since the day President Obama announced that Cubans would no longer receive political asylum in the United States automatically, January 12. Most will be repatriated, and 27 already have, according to Martí Noticias. That outlet notes that another 52 Cubans were detained in U.S. ports of entry between January 12 and mid-March as an extra precaution to implement the policy.

The repeal of Wet Foot/Dry Foot does not mean Cubans cannot appeal their deportation, citing a material risk of political persecution at home. Cuba is a communist dictatorship notorious for flagrant human rights abuses against Christians, political dissidents, and professionals enlisted in the nation’s $8-million-a-year medical slave trade. Those who are fleeing Cuba due to the extreme poverty and lack of economic opportunity on the island created by decades of reliance on the Soviet Union and communist mismanagement do not benefit from this exception.

“We discourage anyone from taking to the sea and attempting to reach U.S. soil illegally,” Vinciguerra told the AP. “They are risking their lives with very little chance of success.”

The number of Cuban nationals attempting to flee to the United States had increased dramatically between 2014 and January 2017 as a direct response to President Obama’s “normalization” policy towards Cuba, which called for the acceptance of dictator Raúl Castro and economic rapprochement with his regime.

The Coast Guard documented a 117-percent increase in the number of Cubans intercepted trying to reach the United States on makeshift nautical vessels between December 2013 and December 2014, when President Obama announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Castro. Upon being caught, Coast Guard officials reported that Cubans were increasingly taking to harming themselves, including instances of Cubans drinking from gallon jugs of bleach to avoid being sent back to Cuba.

While the Associated Press reported an increase in violence on the part of Cuban refugees at the time, they failed to note that the violent acts were largely acts of self-harm.

The Coast Guard report arrives on the anniversary of President Obama’s visit to Cuba in March 2016. Cuban-American legislators in Congress condemned President Obama this week for implementing a policy that has resulted in an increase in state violence and repression against pro-democracy dissidents. According to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, “around 16,000 arrests have occurred in Cuba between last year and 2016, and nearly 90,000 Cubans have abandoned the regime en route to the U.S. coast since December 2014.”

Martí quotes Ros-Lehtinen as describing Obama’s approach as a “failed policy.” Agreeing with her was fellow Florida Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, who told reporters, “these two years have been disastrous for the aspirations of freedom of the Cuban people.” He cited violence against women by Cuban police as a human rights violation of particular concern, given the weekly beatings and arrests of the members of the Ladies in White dissident group.

Obama’s policies also left thousands of Cubans stranded throughout Latin America as the “Wet Foot/Dry Foot” policy allowed Central American nations to help Cuban nationals reach their families in Florida. Panama, Costa Rica, and Mexico have been particularly troubled by streams of thousands of Cubans seeking an escape from communism.

Those stranded have argued that President Obama repealed the executive policy as a response to the Cuban-American community’s longtime support of the Republican Party. Cuban voters largely supported current President Donald Trump during the November 2016 election. “Obama, because he is leaving, suddenly takes up the idea of repealing a law that has been enforced for many years and has favored many Cubans. I think he got angry with the Cubans — it is a reprisal,” Jose Enrique Manresa, a 47-year-old Cuban stranded in Mexico, told the BBC in January.

Unlike President Obama, President Trump has repeatedly condemned the Castro regime, using the occasion of Fidel Castro’s death to condemn the “brutal dictator” and calling for a shift in policy away from the Obama administration’s. Both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer have stated President Trump is seeking a full revision of the U.S.’s Cuba policy.

The Trump administration has done nothing to aid Cubans stranded by the abrupt repeal of “Wet Foot/Dry Foot,” however, and has not moved to shut down the newly reopened U.S. Embassy in Cuba or the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C., the latter of which many in the Cuban-American community have condemned as a base for espionage.

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