Crackdown in Cuba has the Coast Guard increasing patrols
After an unusually busy winter, the U.S. Coast Guard is gearing up for its high season of immigrant smuggling, expecting numbers Key West hasn’t seen in years.
“I’d be willing to say this summer will be busier than in years past,” said Ensign Brett Workman, spokesman for the Coast Guard Group Key West. “And I think we’ll end up seeing a lot more rafts this summer, homemade boats, fishing boats. Basically, people not paying someone else to get them out.”
Based on current unrest and political actions in Cuba, experts predict that this summer, the Keys may see another Cuban refugee crisis, like the one in 1994 that saw more than 37,000 refugees rescued by the Coast Guard in the Florida Straits.
The event, sparked by a riot in Havana that sent thousands of rafters on the voyage to the Keys, cost Monroe County more than $48,000 dealing with the sudden influx of refugees in August and September 1994 alone.
Workman said the Coast Guard has already interdicted 782 migrants this fiscal year, which started in October. In 2002, the Coast Guard picked up 571 Cubans over the entire year.
The recent increased raft traffic is a growing trend.
“Cubans are starting to come over in a slightly different form, using more rafts,” Workman said. “Why would people risk it in a raft? First, the laws are catching up to smuggling. Before, if someone got caught smuggling people in, they’d get a smack on the wrist. Now there’s the possibility of jail time and hefty fines. I think that’s deterring would-be smugglers.
“Also, I think because of the political unrest in Cuba, people are getting more desperate to leave.”
Tensions have been rising in Cuba the past several months as President Fidel Castro ordered the execution of three people who tried to hijack a ferry to the Keys, jailed nearly 100 people for political dissonance, and accused the United States of preparing to declare war on the country.
Summertime is prime time for smuggling.
“In the winter, the Straits are really rough, hard to navigate,” Workman explained. “But that turns into Lake Atlantic in the summertime.”
Smugglers take advantage of the calm waters to make more trips from Cuba. To prepare, the Coast Guard is stepping its operations up a notch.
“Everything we would normally be doing, we’re doing that and then some,” Workman said. “We’re also getting more air flights down here. We don’t have our own helicopters or airplanes stationed here, so we get other flights coming down to help us out. And we’ll probably have more medium-end cutters in the Straits.”
Still, Workman said the Coast Guard doesn’t know what to expect.
“We had an uncharacteristically busy winter,” he said. “At this point, we’re dealing with numbers we haven’t seen in years.”