You might assume that with the thawing of relations between Cuba and the U.S., Cubans would see positive change at home, and less reason to attempt the perilous water crossing to Florida. You'd assume wrong.
U.S. law enforcement authorities are confronting a surge of Cuban migrants trying to make the journey by boat across the Florida Straits; it's the highest numbers they've seen in two decades.
"It's gotten busier and busier," says U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Jeff Janszen, commander of sector Key West, Fla.
Over the past fiscal year, the Coast Guard intercepted 5,396 Cuban migrants who were attempting the crossing. That's nearly twice the number from the previous year. About 1,000 Cubans managed to evade detection and make it to U.S. shores.
The recent arrivals include Yojany Pacheco, 33, from Ciego de Avila, Cuba.
He and some friends pooled their money — the equivalent of several hundred dollars apiece — and built a boat in secret, in the Cuban forest. They got boards for the frame and a car engine from an old Peugeot that they mounted in the middle of the vessel.
After a week of labor, the boat was ready to sail.
Pacheco pulls out his smartphone and proudly shows us videos he shot on their voyage north.
We see 14 Cubans packed into a small wooden boat — 13 men and one woman. They're wearing ball caps, grinning big and giving optimistic thumbs up as they chug away from their homeland. The sun is rising behind them.
Pacheco opens Google maps and points to the route they followed: The path goes from a red dot along the Cuban coast near Laguna de Leche to a gold star outside Marathon, Fla., midway up the Keys.
The trip was about 200 nautical miles, and it took them three days.
Success on the sixth try
Pacheco, who has a degree in math, physics and IT, says he was driven to leave Cuba because he couldn't make a living. Also, since he had tried to leave five times before, he was suspected of being a smuggler and was harassed by Cuban authorities.
On his fifth attempt, this past April, Pacheco made it almost all the way to Florida, sailing tantalizingly close to Key Largo.
"We could see the beach, the yachts, the boats and cars, everything," he recalls. But his boat was intercepted by the Coast Guard, and he and his fellow rafters were sent back home.
"So," he says, "I built another boat. And here I am!"
When they finally landed in Florida on Sept. 9, Pacheco says, "my eyes filled with tears. I looked around and everybody was crying. We hugged each other. Our dream came true."
Under U.S. immigration policy known as "wet foot/dry foot," Cubans who are caught at sea ("wet feet") are sent back home. But those who manage to reach American soil ("dry feet") can stay legally in the U.S., get benefits, and are put on a fast track toward citizenship.
Cuba is the only country that has that special status, which dates back to the Cold War. It's designed to protect Cubans fleeing political persecution under the communist Castro regime.
But now, most Cubans who are leaving are economic migrants seeking better opportunity in the U.S., not political refugees.
Will the policy change?
Critics of "wet foot/dry foot" say the policy no longer makes sense as the U.S. and Cuba normalize relations.
They note that many Cubans travel back and forth to Cuba once they become permanent legal U.S. residents, clearly not fearing persecution.
Amid fears that the policy will change and their unique immigration status will end, the migrants are becoming more desperate to reach U.S. shores.
"It's amazing to me what they'll do," says Janszen, the Coast Guard captain. "We saw one last year where they actually held an infant child over the side of the boat to get us to back off, and we did. Thank God they didn't drop the child overboard."
Coast Guard crews have seen others intentionally wound themselves in hopes they'll be sent to the U.S. for medical care and allowed to stay.
"They've cut themselves. They've shot themselves," Capt. Janszen recounts. "We've seen them drink bleach. We've seen them drink gasoline. You just can't make this stuff up."
Many Cubans figure this might be their last, best chance to get into the U.S. before immigration becomes much more difficult.
So, it's a cat-and-mouse game. The Cubans try to sneak through, and it's up to the Coast Guard and Border Patrol to keep them out.
A hot spot for landings
To get a view from the water, we ride out from Key West on a fast boat with John Apollony, a marine interdiction agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
We cruise through gorgeous turquoise waters and stop by an uninhabited island covered with mangrove trees about 20 minutes from Key West.
It's part of the Marquesas Keys, a hot spot for Cuban migrant landings. The islands are remote enough that Cubans figure they have a better chance of avoiding interdiction.
Apollony scans the beach through binoculars and counts nine abandoned Cuban migrant vessels, known as "chugs," along just one small stretch of shoreline.
Border Patrol agents are confronting migrants who are more emboldened than ever, Apollony says.
"They don't want us coming near them, and they're gonna do everything to get their vessel to shore," he says. "Sometimes they'll have homemade weapons on board — machetes, jagged oars — and they will swing 'em at you or threaten you to try to keep you away from them."
U.S. administration officials have been tight-lipped about any potential changes to U.S. migration policy with Cuba.
But according to Coast Guard Capt. Janszen, if "wet foot/dry foot" were to end, there is a plan to handle an eventual Cuban exodus.
"We'd have to not just have additional Coast Guard assets," he explains. "We'd probably need Department of Defense assets. Navy assets. We'd probably open up camps in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which we had to do actually in the '90s. So there is a plan in place to deal with a mass migration, if it comes to that."
In 1994, Fidel Castro opened the doors to anyone who wanted to leave the island after a series of anti-government demonstrations. He blamed U.S. policy for the rioting in Havana and threatened to unleash a mass exodus to South Florida. More than 35,000 Cubans took to sea before President Clinton declared an immigration emergency, ordering the Coast Guard to intercept the rafters. Many ended up in camps in Guantanamo and Panama before being allowed to migrate to the U.S.
A constant flow
Meanwhile, the Cuban flow shows no sign of abating, despite the well-known dangers of the crossing.
Just days before we visited, a crowded Cuban boat capsized off the Florida Keys.
Three of the migrants on board made it to shore.
Four others were found dead. Sixteen more were missing and presumed drowned.
The Cubans who complete the crossing are processed by the Border Patrol and then turned over to two church groups in Miami.
The migrants are fed, given new clothes and put up in motels. They're granted work permits.
If they don't have family in Florida, they're sent on to live in cities around the country with programs in place to help them find work.
Yojany Pacheco has a job lined up in a restaurant in Albuquerque, N.M. Another recent arrival, Arnalbis Rogel, 45, from Havana, says he'll take any work he can get. When we met, he was about to be sent from Miami to Houston.
Leaving family behind
Rogel left his wife and three children back in Cuba. The youngest is just 14 months old. He pulls out photos of his kids from his wallet, smiles wistfully and taps his heart.
"I know that I have to be strong, because this is the only way I'll give them a better life," he says.
Rogel worked as a baker and candy-maker in Havana. He was unemployed for five months until finally he decided to leave.
He spent 25 nervous hours at sea.
"The sea has an ugly face," Rogel recalls, and he vows that no one else in his family will make the same journey.
His group of rafters called themselves the Vikings. When their boat landed in Key Biscayne on Sept. 7, "we jumped up and down and rubbed our bodies with sand!" Rogel says, laughing and jumping and gesturing with his hands to demonstrate.
The boat's navigator was Modesto Morales, 58, a truck driver from Havana. Describing the journey, he says: "You're tense from the moment you start until you land. You're looking around. If someone says, 'There's a light!' – 'Where?' We had to slow down, so we would pull in at night to avoid the Coast Guard."
With his boat mate, Arnalbis Rogel, Morales was heading for a new life in Houston. "It doesn't matter where I go," he says, "because anywhere, anywhere will be better than Cuba."
Morales says that even with the thawing of relations between the two countries and President Obama's trip to Cuba earlier this year, for regular people, it means nothing.
"Nothing has changed," he says. "For us, it's all the same. No transportation, no jobs, very low salaries. Lots of talk, but no change."
Morales adds: "In Cuba, there is no freedom of speech. Everything you say is a crime."
Morales and Rogel both say they decided to get out of Cuba now while they still had the chance. They're among those who fear that the days are numbered for Cubans' preferential treatment under immigration law.
"If wet foot/dry foot ends," Morales warns, "we Cubans, we're lost!"
Arnalbis Rogel adds a political footnote.
"I told the guys, 'We have to build the boat in record time because elections are coming! We don't know who's going to become president of the U.S., and we don't know what changes will come.'"
These recent arrivals face an uncertain future in an unfamiliar land, but they seem to have no regrets.
"We're like newborn children," Arnalbis Rogel says. "You start out crawling. Then, baby steps. Then, you walk. And then, maybe, you run."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's go now to the Florida Keys, just 90 tantalizing miles from Cuba. Law enforcement authorities are confronting a surge of Cuban migrants trying to make the dangerous journey by boat across the Florida Straits, the highest numbers they've seen in two decades. The Cubans know that if they manage to reach American soil, they'll be allowed to stay legally in the U.S.
But now that the U.S. and Cuba are normalizing relations, the Cubans fear their special immigration status will end soon. And that fear is fueling an ever more desperate migrant tide, as NPR's Melissa Block discovered on a trip to the Florida Keys. And she joins us with that story.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Melissa, this special immigration status that I just mentioned, that is a policy unique to Cubans?
BLOCK: That's right. It's known as the wet-foot, dry-foot policy. And here's how it works. If you are a Cuban migrant, you're trying to get to Florida and the U.S. intercepts you at sea, you have wet feet. You're considered illegal. You're sent back home. But if you make it, if you step foot on U.S. soil, you have dry feet. You can legally stay and you're put on a fast track towards citizenship. And, yes, Cuba is the only country that enjoys that special status.
MONTAGNE: And that's because this policy dates back to the Cold War?
BLOCK: Right, back to the 1960s. It's a policy that was designed to protect Cubans who were fleeing political persecution under the communist Castro regime. But now the Cubans who are leaving are mostly economic migrants. They're seeking better opportunity here. And a lot of people say, look, the policy simply makes no sense anymore.
So what U.S. law enforcement is seeing with rumors that the policy might change is this huge surge of migrants. The number of Cubans trying to make the crossing to Florida has nearly doubled over the past year. And they're steering their way to American shores on makeshift boats and rafts. Some just have sails and paddles. Others, if they're lucky, have managed to salvage an old car engine and mounted it in the middle of the boat.
GLENN SIMPSON: So in front of us is a small wooden vessel...
BLOCK: Otherwise known as a chug. This one - painted bright blue - landed on a remote island in Dry Tortugas National Park in the Gulf of Mexico, 70 miles from Key West.
SIMPSON: Came to us about 10 days ago...
BLOCK: With 12 Cubans onboard, Park manager Glenn Simpson tells me. The chug reeks of fuel. The engine flooded and drenched the migrants. And this boat is far more seaworthy than some.
SIMPSON: Sometimes you'll see just a rebar steel frame with spray foam used to create a flotation device. Makes you think about what the crossing is like and what the people who come have gone through to get here.
BLOCK: In fact, the week I visit, a crowded Cuban vessel has recently capsized off the Florida Keys. Three migrants made it to shore. Four others were found dead. Sixteen more are missing and presumed drowned.
JOHN APOLLONY: All right. Hats secure. Everything secure. Good?
BLOCK: For a view from the water, I head out on a fast boat from Key West with John Apollony. He's a marine interdiction agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
APOLLONY: Coming up.
BLOCK: It's up to agents like John Apollony to keep the Cubans out.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT ENGINE)
BLOCK: We ride through gorgeous turquoise waters and stop by an uninhabited island.
APOLLONY: This is the Marquesas Keys.
BLOCK: And because it's remote, this is a hotspot for Cuban migrant landings.
APOLLONY: One, two, three.
BLOCK: Apollony scans the beach through binoculars, counting the abandoned Cuban chugs that line the shore.
APOLLONY: Eight, nine.
BLOCK: Wait a second, you just counted nine Cuban chugs on this one beach here?
APOLLONY: Yeah. I see at least nine.
BLOCK: What's driving the spike in numbers? Dire economic conditions in Cuba, for one, but also real fear that the wet-foot, dry-foot immigration policy will end with the warming of U.S.-Cuba relations. Those coming now figure this might be their last best chance to get in before the door slams shut. And John Apollony says that means the migrants are more emboldened than ever.
APOLLONY: They're going to do everything to get their vessel to shore. Sometimes they'll have homemade weapons onboard - machetes, jagged oars. And they will, you know, swing them at you or threaten you to try to keep you away from them.
BLOCK: Border Patrol works in tandem with the U.S. Coast Guard.
JEFF JANSZEN: My name is Capt. Jeff Janszen. I'm the commander of Sector Coast Guard Key West. We're here in Key West, Fla.
BLOCK: Janszen figures patrolling for Cuban migrants takes up 80 percent of his sector's time and assets. Administration officials I've contacted have been tight-lipped about any potential changes to U.S. migration policy with Cuba. But if wet-foot, dry-foot were to end, according to Captain Jansen there is a plan to handle an eventual Cuban exodus.
JANSZEN: We'd probably need Department of Defense assets, Navy assets. We'd probably open up camps in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which we had to do actually in the '90s. So there is a plan in place to deal with a mass migration if it comes to that.
BLOCK: Janszen says the Cubans are so desperate, his crews have been seeing the unthinkable.
JANSZEN: You just can't make this stuff up. It's just - it's amazing to me what they'll do.
BLOCK: Some migrants will wound themselves in hopes they'll be medevaced to the U.S. and allowed to stay.
JANSZEN: They've cut themselves, they've shot themselves. We've seen them drink bleach. We've seen them drink gasoline.
KATE WEBB: Sometimes what they'll do is they'll take little nuts and bolts off the ship and occasionally they'll try to eat those, swallow them.
BLOCK: That's Lt. Kate Webb. These crews rescue many Cubans who are in real trouble - exhausted, hypothermic, dehydrated. They feed them, give them medical care and most often send them right back to Cuba. Webb got used to seeing the same faces over and over again, repeaters she calls them. She remembers one man in particular.
WEBB: Yeah. He - we dropped him off in Cabanas and he said, I'll see you in two weeks. I remember him very well (laughter).
BLOCK: And, Renee, Lt. Webb told me that she's sure that that man was going to turn right around and try to make the crossing one more time.
BLOCK: And, Melissa, when you were in Florida, you did meet with one of these repeaters?
BLOCK: That's right. His name is Yojany Pachecho, 33 years old. He finally made it to Florida on his sixth attempt. Six times, Renee, it gives you a sense of his determination to get here. He told me that this past April, he almost had made it. He was just a few miles from Key Largo.
YOJANY PACHECHO: (Foreign language spoken).
BLOCK: So you could see the yachts, the boats, the cars, everything, you could see them?
PACHECHO: (Foreign language spoken).
BLOCK: But he was caught, sent back to Cuba. And he told us, I built another boat and now here I am.
MONTAGNE: Melissa, thanks very much.
BLOCK: You're welcome, Renee.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Melissa Block. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.