For Cubans, a Twisting New Route to the U.S.
Posted: 15 October 2007 01:19 PM   [ Ignore ]
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October 16, 2007
For Cubans, a Twisting New Route to the U.S.
By MARC LACEY NYT
CORTES, Cuba — Cubans are migrating to the United States in the greatest numbers in over a decade, and for most of them the new way to get north is first to head west — to Mexico — in a convoluted route that avoids the United States Coast Guard.
American officials say the spike in migration is due to a lack of hope for change on the island, since Raúl Castro took over as president from his brother Fidel last year. Cuban authorities contend the migration is more economic than political, and is fueled by Washington’s policy of rewarding Cubans who enter the United States illegally.
In fact, unlike Mexicans, Central Americans and others heading to the United States’ southwest border, the Cubans do not have to sneak across. They just walk right up to United States authorities at the border, relying on Washington’s so-called wet foot/dry foot policy, which gives Cubans the ability to become permanent residents if they can only reach American soil.
That is what José Luis Savater, 45, a refrigerator repairman from Havana, did recently to reach south Florida, which remains the goal for most migrating Cubans.
It took Mr. Savater almost four days to reach the Mexican island of Isla Mujeres in a rickety boat made from wood, fiberglass and aluminum, powered by a jerry-rigged motor used for irrigating fields. The 15 men and one woman with him took turns bailing.
“Its extremely dangerous,” Mr. Savater recounted in a recent interview from Cancún. “I saw myself dead. I suffered a lot.”
But his next step was far easier: a flight to the United States-Mexican border, with the help of money wired from relatives in south Florida. Some American officials are calling this new approach — Cubans strolling up to desert border stations and seeking political asylum — dusty foot.
Statistics make clear that Cubans now believe the route, though considerably longer, boosts their odds of reaching Miami. Almost twice as many Cubans — 11,487 — used it as in 2005.
By comparison, during the same time, the Coast guard intercepted just 2,861 Cubans crossing the Florida Straits, and 4,825 others eluded American authorities and the applied for political asylum in the United States, according to the Coast Guard.
The figures indicate a spike in migration from the island, which in fiscal 2007 was at its highest level since 35,000 Cubans left in a mass exodus in 1994.
“The reason why people are willing to risk their lives to leave Cuba is the lack of hope and expectations,” Sean Murphy, the United States. Consul General in Havana, told reporters earlier this month.
The new route is not just diverting migrants. Smugglers are shifting too, resulting in turf battles that are believed to be behind a string of murders in recent months of Cuban nationals in the Yucatán. The same place that Cubans are coming ashore is crisscrossed by narcotics traffickers and there is fear that the two businesses could merge.
Altogether, the issue has attracted the attention of officials from throughout the region, since Cubans sometimes go off track and land on other Caribbean islands or farther south in Central America.
Manuel Aguilera de la Paz, Cuba’s ambassador to Mexico, told reporters recently that migration is at the top of the agenda as Mexico and Cuba seek to improve strained relations that prompted the two countries to briefly pull their ambassadors in 2004.
In Washington, Thomas Shannon, the deputy secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, has expressed concern, as well. “There is some kind of struggle going on among gangs,” he said of the violence in Cancún, calling the new route “a recent phenomenon.”
The United States Coast Guard’s aggressive patrols off the Florida Straight prompted the new route, most agree. The coast guard returns migrants who are caught at sea to Cuba, where authorities have said they will not take retribution against them.
“It’s practically Mission Impossible to go directly to Miami,” said an American official who is tracking the issue but who did not have approval to speak on the record about it.
In Mexico, however, the coast is far more loosely patrolled and, some say, local authorities are more likely to look the other way for a bribe.
The rocky eastern shore of Isla Mujeres, a speck of an island near the resort town of Cancún, is a popular landing spot. Despite the presence of a Mexican Navy post there, Cuban boats come ashore regularly.
“We’re looking for Colombian drug dealers, not Cubans,” said a Mexican Navy officer who was on a nighttime watch on a bluff that is the island’s highest point.
When the Navy does intercept vessels, mostly those in distress, they are escorted ashore. The traffickers are arrested and their boats seized.
But migrants are in most cases fined and then released. They have 30 days to leave the country, plenty of time to find their way north.
The smuggling networks themselves have become more sophisticated. The smugglers operate out of Miami, with representatives on the coasts of Cuba and Mexico, experts say. They carry satellite telephones so the transfers are done with military-like precision.
Safe houses have been set up along the Mexican coast to help the Cubans elude Mexican authorities and avoid paying the fine. One Cuban who made it to Mexico said he was impressed by the organization of it all.
Cuban rice and beans awaited him upon arrival in Mexico. Within days, he was off to the Texas border with instructions with what he should say to quickly enter the United States.
The kinds of craft being used are also a step up. The boats leaving Cuba used to be the most ramshackle imaginable. They were inner tubes strung together or rusted out vessels that were powered by car engines, oars or even, in at least one case, a weed whacker.
While many, like Mr. Savater, the Havana repairman, still come that way, for the right price Cubans nowadays can also climb aboard a sleek modern boat with three 275-horsepower outboard motors hanging from the back.
“They look like they can fly,” said a fisherman on Cuba’s southwestern coast who has spotted the vessels and spoke of them with a jealous look in his eye.
The boats swoop in to a prearranged spot on the Cuban coast line, and quickly load and leave, with the price for the express service exceeding $10,000 in many cases. Some are allowed aboard without paying the full price, Cubans with knowledge of the business say, but they have to commit to joining the smuggling network and return to pick up more migrants.
Cuban authorities are usually caught flatfooted. They have set up military checkpoints along the coast and banned locals from fishing on some stretches of beach to get a handle on the new escape routes. But the flow continues, mostly from remote beaches on the western half of the island.
“Mexico is that way,” said a fisherman pulling his boat ashore in a popular smuggling spot near Cortes, gesturing toward the west. “That’s the new way out.”
The Cubans use loudspeakers to warn of the dangers of the voyage and urge everyone to come back. But the boats rarely, if ever, do. If the boat is heading to Florida, the Cuban authorities radio information to the United States Coast Guard. If it is heading to Mexico, they throw up their arms.
“I’m on the lookout,” said a young Cuban Coast Guard recruit outside Cortes, who was manning what looked like a lifeguard tower jacked up 30 feet for a better view. He had high-powered binoculars but a vast stretch of coast to watch.
Farther west, at the smuggling hotspot of Cabo Frances, the army has set up a base at the beach and strung a tree branch across the only entry point with a small cardboard sign declaring it a military zone. Locals have been told not to fish there anymore until the problem is under control.
Like so much else in United States-Cuban relations, migration is mired in bad blood.
Cubans blame Washington for the exodus, saying that allowing Cubans who arrive illegally in the United States to stay permanently provides an incentive for people to risk their lives at sea. Cuban authorities grumble as well that Washington issued only 15,000 of the 20,000 visas it promised under a recent migration accord to allow Cubans to legally leave.
The United States has a different view. American officials blame government repression as the reason why people are willing to risk their lives at sea. And they say that Cuban officials have not permitted the United States Interest Section in Havana to fill all the positions there that are needed to handle the paperwork.
In Mexico, there is acceptance of the arriving Cubans among coastal residents, mixed with a tinge of resentment. “It’s sad that a Mexican can’t enter the U.S. if they reach the border and a Cuban can,” said Alba Rios, a resident of Isla Mujeres who has noticed significant numbers of Miami Cubans arriving on the island to aid with the migrant flow.
Some Mexicans are even getting ideas from the Cubans. A trade is developing in Cuban identity documents and some savvy Mexican migrants are now practicing Cuban accents and rehearsing dramatic stories they intend to tell United States Border Patrol agents about the horrors they have suffered in Havana.
Elisabeth Malkin contributed reporting from Mexico City.

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Posted: 15 October 2007 03:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Interesting story. Thanks for posting it.

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