Cuban Refugees Navigate Makeshift Raft Through Tropical Storm to U.S.

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

A group of about four to five Cuban men landed on the shores of Hallandale Beach, Florida, on Tuesday, likely passing through parts of Tropical Storm Elsa, which made landfall in Cuba on Monday.

A resident of the city recorded their arrival on what appeared to be a makeshift sailing vessel. The men landed and immediately scampered, likely attempting to avoid arrest and repatriation by the U.S. Coast Guard. Under former President Barack Obama, the U.S. government rescinded the longstanding “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which allowed any Cuban who touches ground on America to stay in the country legally. Now, these individuals have to apply for asylum to stay in America, required to prove a credible threat to their persons by the repressive communist regime.

Reports from Florida have not at press time identified the individuals involved or confirmed how many made it to land. The U.S. Coast Guard confirmed that it had located the vessel they arrived on but did not notify the press of any arrests, suggesting the refugees remain at large.

Timeframes for Cuban balseros, or “rafters,” to make their way to American soil vary widely depending on where on Cuba they began their journeys and where they happen to land, but the trips can take as much as six days, meaning the refugees caught on video in Hallandale Beach likely left the island before Elsa made landfall there, and may have barely missed the eye of the storm when arriving in Florida.

Video of the unknown migrants’ arrival surfaced on social media Tuesday, taken by local resident Jaime López, who can be heard narrating the video. The rafters reportedly landed in Florida at around 8:45 a.m., hours before Elsa made landfall in the state.

“Brother, I can’t believe,” López said in English, before switching to Spanish. “They just got here on a raft, they just got here from Cuba, look at that!”

“Welcome to America, mi gente,” López added.

Local media estimates vary from four to “at least five” people arriving. Miami news broadcaster AméricaTeve reported that the refugees immediately fled, but local eyewitnesses said they asked where they were and asked locals how far they were from Miami Beach. Hallandale Beach is about 16 miles north of Miami Beach. Witnesses also said that the refugees said they were at sea for six days. Meteorologists first began following Elsa’s trajectory on July 1 – six days ago – so a possibility exists the migrants were not aware that a potential hurricane was heading in their direction.

The Hallandale Beach migrants were reportedly not the only Cubans to attempt the trek on Tuesday. U.S. Coast Guard officials confirmed the rescue on Wednesday of 13 Cuban nationals whose vessel had capsized; nine remain missing.

“The boat carrying 22 people capsized at about 8 p.m. Monday after departing Cuba, survivors have told the Coast Guard, it said. Tropical Storm Elsa would have been crossing Cuba east of Havana at the time, and its outer bands would have been affecting seas,” CNN reported.

The phenomenon of Cuban balseros attempting to flee communism through the Straits of Florida has existed for decades, as the Castro regime tightly regulates travel for its citizens and banned them from leaving the country for decades. Currently, travel visas are often reserved for the most privileged and well-connected in communist society, and only dissidents famous enough to attract the attention of international human rights organizations receive permission to leave the island.

Dictator Fidel Castro actively encouraged Cubans to leave via homemade boats and rafts in the early 1990s, sentencing thousands to their deaths. On some occasions, as in the notorious Tugboat Massacre of 1994, Cuban officials attacked the rafts, drowning those on board. The tugboat involved in that incident, the 13 de Marzo, was carrying 72 people. Among them, 41 drowned, including a six-month-old child named Helen Martínez Enríquez.

While no concrete death tolls exist for the balseros throughout the decades, the Associated Press estimated in 2014, prior to a significant surge in seabound refugees during the Obama administration, that at least 18,000 had died on the high seas before making it to America.

The Obama era, in which the president offered concessions to the Castro regime in a failed attempt to democratize it, triggered a significant increase in the number of refugees attempting to reach the United States. Videos of balseros landing ashore in Miami, often to cheers from Cuban-American beachgoers, became a staple of the community during Obama’s tenure. One group of rafters published a video in 2015, about two years after it is believed that they made the trip, that they took while onboard a dinghy halfway through the trip, clearly in no visible distance to any land.

The U.S. Coast Guard documented a 170-percent increase in interceptions of Cubans on the high seas between January and April 2015. The increase prompted Obama to rescind “wet foot, dry foot,” which presented its own complications. Cuban refugees began packing bleach on their trips, immediately drinking it when in sight of the Coast Guard to ensure that they would be taken to a hospital rather than repatriated.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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