In East Germany people would dig tunnels and run across mine fields to escape. In Cuba, rafts of all sizes and shapes are being pieced together from scrounged together material in order to recklessly brave the sea. Inner tubes tied together, car hulls held afloat with empty oildrums and held together with tarps. Anything that might float for 4 days across the 90 miles that separate Cuba from Florida.

Cuba holds its people prisoner in a variety of ways, one of the means of control is to restrict emigration. I you want to leave you have to seek permission from the Cuban authorities as well as obtain a visa for the destination country. Even when they obtain such a visa, the authorities
can refuse them exit or delay their departure indefinitely. Many are then forced to flee the country, usually by sea. Apart from the risks associated with heading to sea on a raft, the refugees are guilty of violating articles 216 and 217 of the Cuban Penal Code, punishable by three years in jail, or a fine of one year’s wages.



Below is a brief historical summary of the Cuban Exodus, pieced together from Wikipedia, newspaper articles and the U.S. Coast Guard information.

The majority of the more than 2 million current Cuban exiles living in the United States live in and around the city of Miami.  About half this number were permitted to leave, however without any possessions. The rest has fled without permission from the Cuban government, risking imprisonment and death.

Most Cuban exiles in the United States are both legally and self-described political refugees. This status allows them different treatment under US Immigration statutes than other Latin American immigrants. The exiles came in numerous discernible waves.

The first wave occurred after the Cuban revolution of 1959 led by Fidel Castro. A lot of the refugees came with the idea that the new government would not last long, and their stay in the US was temporary. Homes, cars, and other properties in Cuba were left with family, friends, and relatives, who would take care of them until the Castro regime would fall.

The second wave began in 1961 amid the nationalization of educational institutions, hospitals, private land, and industrial facilities. Additionally, the Castro government began a political crackdown on the opposition either incarcerating opponents or perceived opponents or executing the same. At this point, after the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Castro had gone from a self-proclaimed non-communist freedom fighter to a self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist.

There was a smaller wave of refugees in 1965 from the Cuban port of Camarioca. Cuban exiles from Miami brought friends and relatives to Key West by using small leisure boats.

From 1965 through 1972, “Freedom Flights” from Havana to Miami transported thousands of Cuban refugees. Flights were limited to immediate relatives, with a waiting period anywhere from one to two years.

In 1980, probably one of the most impacting wave of exiles occurred during what became known as the Mariel Boatlift. The mass boatlift occurred after a number of Cubans drove a bus through the gates of the Havana Peruvian Embassy and requested asylum. eventually 4,000 plus asylum seekers that came into the embassy within the next few days. Reacting to this unexpected and sudden exodus and embarrassed in front of the world media, Castro basically stated that “anyone who wants to leave Cuba can do so”. This resulted in an even worse exodus through the port of Mariel ,where an improvised flotilla of Cuban exiles from Miami in small pleasure boats and commercial shrimping vessels brought Cuban citizens who wished to leave the island. As the exodus became international news and an embarrassment for the Cuban government, Castro rounded up residents confined to insane asylums, hard-core criminals–not political–from prisons, and other “socially undesirables”, forcing the incoming rescuers from Miami to take the worse elements from the island to the US if they wanted to leave Cuba with their friends and relatives.

Within weeks, more than 125,000 Cubans reached the United States despite Coast Guard attempts to stem the movement.

A U.S. fishing vessel transporting Cubans from Mariel to Key West. (Photo USCG)

A U.S. fishing vessel transporting Cubans from Mariel to Key West. (Photo USCG)

The number of people escaping their homeland by boat steadily increased year by year between 1991 and 1993.

In 1991 the Coast Guard reported 1,936 Cuban migrants; in 1992, 2,336 and in 1993 3,687. On July 13, 1994, 41 persons, including 12 children, died when the Cuban coastguards sank the tugboat 13 de Marzo, on which 70 people were trying to flee. In August of the same year, after Fidel Castro once again said that “whoever wanted to leave could go, over 35,000 Cubans launched makeshift boats and rafts into the Florida Straits.

Overwhelmed by this new wave, a new policy, The wet foot, dry foot policy was enacted in the U.S. stating that anyone who fled Cuba and got into the United States would be allowed to pursue residency a year later. After talks with the Cuban government, the Clinton Administration came to an agreement with Cuba that it would stop admitting people found at sea. Since then, in what has become known as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, a Cuban caught on the waters between the two nations (i.e., with “wet feet”) would summarily be sent home or to a third country. One who makes it to shore (“dry feet”) gets a chance to remain in the United States, and later would qualify for expedited “legal permanent resident” status and U.S citizenship.

Since the mid-1990s immigration patterns changed. Many Cuban immigrants departed from the southern and western coasts of Cuba and arrived at the yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. From there Cuban immigrants traveled to the Texas-Mixico border and found asylum. The term “dusty foot” refers to Cubans immigrating to the U.S. through Mexico.

Abandoned Cuban vessel stranded on a beach in Honduras.

Abandoned Cuban vessel stranded on a beach in Honduras.

The Coast Guard has been intercepting a steadily larger amount of rafters. 1,464 in 2003; 1,499 in 2004; 2,952 in 2005; 2,293 in 2006 and 3,197 in 2007. has collected a series of articles that ran in The Miami Herald in 2004, that sheds light on the rafter exodus and their impact on politics in Cuba and on the exile community in Florida.

Written by IPH on Feb 24,2009 in: |

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