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Posted August 12, 2004 by publisher in Cuban Culture

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ANITA SNOW | Associated Press

A fisherman floats on a raft off the beach where the first wave of tens of thousands of people set sail a decade ago and launched an exodus that eventually pushed the United States to sharply curtail its welcome for Cuba’s boat people.

The lone fisherman, and the children frolicking on the shore, make a placid contrast to the “crisis de los balseros,” or rafters’ crisis, that unfolded at this town six miles east of Havana in mid-August 1994.

A string of boat hijackings, unprecedented rioting and the killing of a navy lieutenant had provoked Fidel Castro into suggesting that anyone wanting to leave could do so. Over the next five weeks or so, more than 30,000 islanders took the Cuban president at his word and sailed away unhindered on makeshift rafts.

Ten years later, people here doubt it could happen again; for one thing the voyage on precarious rafts of plywood and inner tubes is too risky.

“There are still many who want to leave to improve their economic situation, but don’t because they don’t want to die,” said Cojimar historian Ernesto Humberto Garcia.

And these days, even those who leave have only a slim chance of success unless they manage to touch American soil.

For 35 years Cuban migrants were welcomed as refugees from communism and granted permanent U.S. residency almost without question. But after the 1994 crisis, U.S.-Cuban migration accords set out the so-called “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy, whereby Cubans who reach U.S. land are usually allowed to stay, while most picked up at sea are returned home.

Another factor is the economy, which has improved since 1994, when Cuba was cast adrift by the collapse of its ally, the Soviet Union.

And then there were the Sept. 11 attacks, which led U.S. officials to warn that a new exodus would be seen as an attack on national security.

The warning is not lost on Cuban officials. Castro claims the Bush administration would love to provoke another exodus as an excuse for invading Cuba - a theory dismissed as “patently false” by James Cason, the chief U.S. diplomat on the island.

The upheaval of 1994 began when thousands of Cubans crowded Havana’s sea wall to cheer on the latest of many ferry hijackings by passengers bent on reaching “La Yuma” - slang for the United States. On Aug. 5 protesters and government supporters clashed with sticks and stones. Rioters broke windows and looted tourist stores.

After hijackers seized a military vessel in Mariel port west of Havana and killed a navy lieutenant on Aug. 8, Castro’s patience wore thin.

“Massive emigration has been taking place in planes, boats, rafts,” he declared Aug. 11.

He blamed the Americans, saying: “They have created the conditions that led to it.” Then he added what sounded like an invitation to disgruntled Cubans to leave: “Let them spend the fuel and not us. Let them use all their boats.”

Within a few days, Cubans were heading north from several places east and west of Havana, mostly on “balsas.” The police did nothing, and the exodus spread.

People came from as far off as Camaguey, 300 miles to the east, Garcia, the 74-year-old historian, recounted. Many abandoned cars and trucks in an emotional atmosphere of tearful farewells and gleeful exhortations to bystanders to join them.

“People told me: ‘Go, join them, take your daughter,’” recalled 52-year-old accountant Carmen Armas, whose home faces a beach where rafters set sail. “I was not going to risk my baby girl’s life.”

Vendors sold bottled water and charged money to inflate inner tubes. Those left behind scrambled onto rooftops to watch.

From around Aug. 14 until the U.S. Coast Guard halted rescue operations on Sept. 23, tens of thousands set off across the Florida Straits.

The previous time Cuba had opened its borders was during the 1980 Mariel boat lift, when 125,000 people sailed to the United States, mostly on seaworthy vessels brought here by U.S. sailors. This time, however, President Clinton took only a few days to halt the open-door policy.

So the U.S. Coast Guard shipped most of the more than 30,000 Cuban rafters picked up at sea to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The rest were housed in tents in Panama.

Most eventually emigrated permanently to the United States.

With the economic reforms that followed, more than half of Cuba’s 11.3 million people have access to dollars either through remittances from relatives, tips from tourists, off-the-books work and even as a portion of income from government jobs. This, plus the legalization of limited self-employment and private farming, have gradually increased the availability of services and goods - including food.

Despite a recent modest rollback of the reforms, people generally live better now than a decade ago. So far this year the 1,100 Cubans picked up at sea are outnumbered 3-1 by Haitians and 4-1 by Dominicans.

As for Castro, he turns 78 on Friday and shows no inclination to retire. He has outlasted nine U.S. presidents and communist officials make no secret of their hope that the 10th, George W. Bush, will lose the presidency to Sen. John Kerry, even though the Democratic contender vows to maintain the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

The turnaround in migration policy hasn’t stopped all Cubans from attempting the risky voyage, as the Elian Gonzalez crisis showed. The Cuban boy was thrust into an international custody battle in late 1999 after surviving a boat accident that killed his mother and most others aboard.

Thousands still leave Cuba by sea annually, but now usually on much safer speedboats with smugglers charging up to $8,000 each.

In June, baseball player Kendry Morales and the family of New York Yankees pitcher Jose Contreras were smuggled out separately on speedboats.

Last July, a group left on a 1951 Chevy pickup truck converted to float, but were picked up at sea and sent home. Most were repatriated again after a second try in February on a 1959 Buick, but a couple and their 4-year-old son got a reprieve and were sent to the Guantanamo base for further investigation of their political asylum claims.

U.S. officials say fewer than 1,000 Cubans now reach American shores by sea annually. Most of those picked up at sea are sent home on U.S. Coast Guard ships, which, under the migration accords, are allowed to bring them into Cuban ports. The idea is to demonstrate that those who are caught are more likely to be sent back.

Still, Cojimar remains a common embarkation point for migrants.

Townspeople say that during a recent electricity blackout, a large boat powered by a tractor engine slipped away carrying an unknown number of passengers.

Police showed up the next morning to tow away a pickup truck left behind.

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