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More Cubans Striking Out Across the Sea

The Coast Guard notes a big increase in the number of people trying make land in the U.S. Patrols are stepped up to stem the tide.

October 09, 2005|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — As a hurricane spun in the Gulf of Mexico, about to strike Texas and Louisiana, a different sort of maritime drama was unfolding off Florida's southeastern coast -- the desperate attempt of 10 Cuban men, riding a homemade boat shaped like a coffin, to reach U.S. shores.

As local TV stations beamed live images throughout South Florida, the men were stopped by the Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security about a mile east of Haulover Beach, north of Miami Beach.

Six were released in Cuba, and the rest were transferred to the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay for interviews with U.S. immigration officials, Petty Officer Ryan Doss, a Coast Guard spokesman, said Tuesday.

The dramatic television pictures -- at one point, the Cubans' boat was bumped, spilling four men into the water -- highlighted a development that largely has been occurring much farther offshore, out of the public eye: The number of Cubans trying to reach the United States via the perilous journey across the Florida Straits has reached its highest level in more than a decade.

The Coast Guard says it intercepted 1,499 Cubans before they could reach U.S. shores last year. Already this year, it has halted 2,251 Cubans at sea.

During the fiscal year that ended Friday, the Coast Guard intercepted 2,712 Cubans, or more than double the 1,225 stopped in fiscal year 2004.

"Definitely the numbers are up. One would think there are also more getting through," said Luis Diaz, another Coast Guard spokesman.

One key factor in the increased interceptions, Diaz said, is that the Coast Guard and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, have become more vigilant in monitoring the stretch of water between the United States and Cuba.

In July, the Coast Guard announced that it was shifting two additional patrol boats to the Florida Keys and increasing both sea and aerial surveillance.

Planes and helicopters from the federal Customs and Border Protection service were also ordered to help, and the Florida Highway Patrol was enlisted as well to check boats being towed south on Florida's roads to see if they belonged to potential smugglers.

Diaz said the increased efforts, which had to be temporarily modified so the Coast Guard could rescue victims of Hurricane Katrina, have paid off.

"The reality is that we're stopping more," he said.

At-sea interdictions now total more than in any single year since 1994, when more than 37,000 Cubans, many using inner tubes or flimsy rafts, braved the hazards of an ocean voyage to reach the United States.

Since then, U.S. immigration policy has been changed to distinguish between Cubans detained on the water -- who usually get sent back -- and those who manage to set foot in the United States. They usually are allowed to stay.

That helps explain why on Sept. 23, as Hurricane Rita neared Texas and Louisiana, the men in the homemade boat were so eager to reach southeastern Florida.

On Tuesday, the Coast Guard said one of its cutters repatriated 54 Cubans caught trying to enter the United States illegally. The week before, 107 would-be migrants who used rafts, rickety watercraft and speedboats in their abortive bids to reach the United States were sent back to Cuba, according to the Coast Guard.

Diaz said Cuban families in the United States might pay $8,000 to $15,000 to the operator of a fast vessel to bring a relative over from Cuba. Such voyages sometimes turn deadly. In August, a 28-foot boat believed to be operated by smugglers capsized north of Matanzas, Cuba. Three survivors were fished from the water by a passing freighter, and they reported that there had been 31 other Cubans aboard. No trace of anyone else was found.

In another suspected smuggling incident, the Coast Guard cutter Metompkin was dispatched Sept. 17 to waters 40 miles southwest of Key West after a Customs and Border Protection plane spotted a speedboat on fire. As the cutter approached, two people jumped into the water, Diaz said. Only one, burned on his arms and torso, could be rescued.

"People here are paying thousands to get their loved ones killed. Even smugglers are getting killed," Diaz said.

But not just enforcement efforts have intensified; the numbers of people seeking to flee Fidel Castro's Cuba have also been rising.

"More Cubans are leaving; more Cubans are being intercepted," said Damian Fernandez, a political scientist and director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

The reasons, he said, are the dreary realities of life on the Communist-ruled island, as well as the possible intent of the Castro regime to irk the Bush administration by opening the emigration tap.

On a single Tuesday this fall, three separate groups of Cubans landed in the Florida Keys. One group of seven men, three women and a child motored ashore at a private resort on Little Torch Key, dirty and weary after a 33-hour voyage in a homemade diesel-powered boat.

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