One early morning this April, Dairon Morera climbed onto a raft of aluminum tanks with 22 other people, revved up a Volvo car motor and pushed off the Cuban shore, joining a never-ending stream of islanders desperate to reach the United States.
“The biggest dream a Cuban has is to leave,” said Morera, who was frustrated by government limits on his pizza business. He had no money for airplane tickets or smugglers, so decided to risk his life at sea.
Morera’s journey was so turbulent that many people vomited, but all made it alive in just 20 hours. They ran ashore in the Florida Keys, hugging each other and shouting “Libertad!”
The number of Cubans trying this perilous journey is up sharply this year, with nearly 3,000 picked up by U.S. authorities so far, double last year’s pace.
The special status Cuban migrants have thanks to U.S. efforts undermine their communist government is a constant pull. While illegal U.S. immigrants fleeing poverty or violence in other countries are deported, Cubans are welcomed.
The trip can take two or three days if all goes well. But storms, strong currents, sharks and jellyfish abound. Without navigational tools or powerful engines, people can be swept far from any coast, running out of water and dying in the merciless sun.
“If we don’t find them and they don’t land, their chances of survival decrease every day they are out there,” said Capt. Mark Fedor, the Coast Guard’s enforcement chief in Miami.
Twenty years have passed since Fidel Castro eased political pressure on his communist government by telling Cubans they were free to leave. His declaration in August 1994 launched a sudden exodus of 35,000 islanders. Thousands were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and spent months behind barbed wire at the U.S. Navy base on Cuba’s eastern edge.
Finally, President Bill Clinton reached a deal with Castro: The migrants at Guantanamo could come to the U.S., and at least 20,000 other Cubans a year could get U.S. visas. But Cuban authorities would resume patrolling to keep people off unseaworthy rafts, and the U.S. would enforce a “wet-foot, dry foot” policy: Anyone intercepted at sea would be returned to Cuba; any Cuban reaching U.S. soil could stay.
It was a political compromise, meant to resolve a humanitarian crisis. But it never stopped Cubans from risking their lives to cross the 90-mile Florida Straits: Another 26,000 Cubans have tried it since 1995.
The death toll is unknown. Scholars estimate that at least one of every four rafters doesn’t survive.
That would mean at least 16,000 people have perished in the waters between Florida and Cuba since the 1959 revolution, said Holly Ackerman, a librarian at Duke University who has extensively studied the 1994 crisis.
A more accurate toll is possible, and even a list of the dead, since the U.S. knows who arrived and Cuba knows who left. But a real accounting has never been on the agenda of the governments’ migration talks held twice each year, she said.
“It is shameful that the two countries have not done this,” Ackerman said.
The latest arrivals come mostly on makeshift rafts, and have no close U.S. relatives, said Oscar Rivera, director of the Church World Service’s Miami office, which helps newly arrived Cuban migrants.
“They come smelling like fish and gasoline,” said Juan Lopez, associate director for Cuban and Haitian resettlement with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Miami. “You can tell by looking at them how difficult, the things they have gone through to get here.”
Cubans come ashore as far north as the Carolinas, but more often reach the Keys, where empty rafts are often found with jackets, pants, shoes, bottles of water and backpacks on board, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Officer Janette Costoya.
Most of the time, she has no idea what happened to those on board.
The latest rafts are often made of spray foam, wrapped in tarp and secured by metal rods. About half have engines, many adapted from cars or lawn mowers.
“They are unsinkable,” Costoya said.
The visa lottery was supposed to promise a safe alternative for Cubans who don’t qualify as refugees or immigrants. But the U.S. hasn’t called for new applicants since 1998, and most U.S. visas now go to reunify divided families.
After succeeding his brother as president, Raul Castro dropped a requirement that Cubans get exit visas. But safe escapes are far too expensive for most Cubans to afford.
“Those who don’t have close family ties are forced to migrate without papers or look for other routes,” said Jorge Duany, who directs the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
Many rafters evade Coast Guard patrols, and a fraction caught with “wet feet” — federal officials won’t say how many — are brought to U.S. shores for medical treatment or to pursue political asylum.
In 2012, 32,551 Cubans obtained legal U.S. residency, while only 90 who made it to U.S. shores were returned to the island. The same year, 146,406 Mexicans got residency, 448,697 were apprehended and 131,818 were deported.
Immigrant rights activists it’s unfair, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban-American Republican, agreed with them on one point, saying last year that some Cubans abuse their refugee status by repeatedly visiting relatives back on the island.
But Rubio didn’t push for changes, and Cuban migration has hardly been mentioned in congressional debates on immigration.