Cubans flee the island’s economic woes by air, land and sea

Cubans flee the island’s economic woes by air, land and sea

Cubans flee the island’s economic woes by air, land and sea

Cuba Escape Routes (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Cuba Escape Routes (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

A Cuban man endured a journey through eight countries that lasted more than a month. Another man paid a small fortune for a stealthy speedboat ride. A third decided to risk a dangerous passage aboard a homemade raft rather than stay an extra moment on the island.

Cubans have been fleeing their country in large numbers for more than four decades, choosing to stake their lives and futures on a perilous journey to the United States by air, land and sea to escape economic and political woes.

Most fly to Nicaragua as tourists and slowly make their way to the US border, often to Texas or Arizona. A smaller number gambles on an ocean voyage. Three men who survived the odyssey told the Associated Press about it.

Tens of thousands of others share the same goal. From January to July, US border authorities barred Cuban migrants from entering Mexico nearly 155,000 times, more than six times more than in the same period in 2021. From October to August, the Coast Guard intercepted more than 4,600 Cubans , an almost sixfold increase in the entire previous year.

The vast majority are released with a warning to appear in immigration court or report to immigration authorities.

In all, it is the largest flight of Cuban exiles from the Mariel Bridge in 1980, when nearly 125,000 Cubans arrived in the United States over a six-month period.

The exodus is fueled by Cuba’s worst economic conditions in decades, the result of tightening US sanctions and a COVID-19 hangover.

Massive street protests in mid-2021 triggered widespread arrests and fears of political oppression that prompted others to flee. A further enticement emerged in November, when Nicaragua stopped requiring visas from Cubans to promote tourism.

Two of the three men spoke with AP on condition of anonymity because they fear for the safety of relatives still on the island. These are their reports of the trip:

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CROSSING EIGHT COUNTRIES AND TWO RIVERS

Rolando José Cisneros Borroto, who worked as a street vendor in Camaguey, a city in central Cuba, said he was tired of starving and decided to leave his wife and three children in hopes of finding a job in the United States that would help support his family.

Borroto, 42, sold everything – home, furniture and television – to pay for the trip, raising $ 13,000. His family has stayed in another house that belongs to his wife.

After taking six flights, he finally arrived in Nicaragua in June. From there he went overland to Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.

He crossed two rivers on an inflatable rubber ring, hiked through mountains and along highways, and took a ride aboard buses, cars and motorcycles.

While hiding from Mexican police, he spent days drinking water from a river and eating nothing but grass. Eventually he crossed the United States south of Del Rio, Texas and surrendered to the Border Patrol.

Borroto was released after three days of detention and now lives in Algona, Iowa, where a cousin offered him a room in the house and food. The journey lasted 36 days.

“I never thought it would take so much work to arrive,” said Borroto, who has been arrested at least three times in Cuba for selling garlic on the street. “What you pass along the way I do not recommend to anyone, but Cubans prefer to die on the street before staying in Cuba”.

A PROTEST, A PROSECUTOR’S OFFICE AND A MOTORBOAT

Another Cuban man, 35, participated in the protests in July 2021, when thousands of people across the island clamored for food and a change of government. He was tried on charges of public disorder and contempt and released after 30 days in prison pending sentencing.

He fled in February, the month before he was sentenced to five years in prison. Air travel was out of the question because he would be stopped at the airport after showing his passport. A raft was too dangerous.

A speedboat “was the only way to escape,” the man said in an interview at the office of his Miami attorney, Wilfredo Allen. He left the island without telling his 5-year-old daughter. Only his wife, mother and brother knew.

Unemployed, he asked his father, who lives in Texas, for about $ 15,000 to pay the traffickers who gave him instructions over the phone.

Two days before the trip, he traveled 400 kilometers to Ciego de Avila, a town in the center of the island. From there, a bus picked him up along with 30 other people and took them about 60 miles (100 kilometers) to one of the keys to Cuba to board the speedboat. Among the migrants were a pregnant woman and a 7-year-old child.

They crossed the Bahamas and, after 12 hours, arrived at dawn at an unknown location in the Florida Keys. The boat stopped in a mangrove swamp. Then they landed and several cars picked them up on a highway. A Cuban friend met him in a house where he was kidnapped.

A DESPERATE JOURNEY ON A HOME-MADE RAFT

Cubans who can’t afford a speedboat or the $ 10,000 to $ 15,000 in travel expenses and smuggling to fly to Nicaragua sometimes flee on rafts made of pipes or wood.

Among them was a 37-year-old man who occasionally worked in construction and fishing. He couldn’t pay a smuggler, so he built a 10-foot raft of aluminum tubes. In May 2021, he traveled with three friends for 22 hours until he reached South Florida.

“The first thing you think about is leaving, that either we all starve little by little, or we give it a try,” said the man, who secretly built the raft in six months. “I knew I could die in the water, but I had to take the risk.”

He built the raft himself and kept it hidden among bushes and mangroves. On the same day of the trip, he bought a small engine that allowed him to travel at around 6 mph (10 km / h).

Nobody knew about the trip, except his three companions, his mother and his wife. For fear of being discovered, he communicated the date of their trip to his companions a few hours before their departure.

They left late at night, rowing from a fishing port west of Havana, he said in a lengthy interview in Allen’s office. Without GPS, they sailed among the stars.

A whole day passed, and when night came, they saw the entrance buoys of an island. They approached the coast and walked.

At least we’re alive, he thought, but soon they realized someone was calling the authorities to report them. They immediately ran back to the boat and returned to the sea, fearing that they would be detained and deported.

They waited in the water for a while and then reached a beach in Key West, where a group of Cuban tourists offered to take them to Miami. The man called his wife to tell her that he had arrived safe and sound and was on his way to the house of the in-laws.

He is now seeking asylum and hopes to take his wife and three teenage daughters to join him in the United States

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Associated Press reporters Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Andrea Rodríguez in Havana contributed to this report.

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