The Endless Drama of the Cuban Rafters, Where Are the Causes?

Cuban rafters intercepted by the US Coast Guard October, 2020. Photo Coast Guard

Miriam Celaya, Cubanet, 8 June 2021 —  On January 12th, 2017, when Barack Obama, the then outgoing president, repealed the dry feet/wet feet policy that had been in force since 1995 — a result of immigration agreements between the US and Cuba after the Balseros Crisis (1994) — Cuban authorities considered that decision as “an important step” for the advancement of relations between both governments. In addition, Raúl Castro, then Cuban president, gave himself credit for the event as a result of the secret negotiations that his government had held with the northern neighbor for more than a year.

It should be noted that, though years ago the Cuban side had accepted in principle the conditions proposed by the Clinton administration regarding the return of migrants who were intercepted at sea, it had previously refused to do so. Since 1995, the Cuban dictatorship had insistently spoken out against the existence of that policy that, it claimed, encouraged illegal migrations from the Island, putting the lives of thousands of Cubans at risk while causing a “brain drain.”

For their part, Cubans living in and outside of Cuba reacted virulently against what they considered Obama’s flagrant betrayal, despite the fact that visas had multiplied under his government and that the entry of Cuban migrants to the US had increased, especially since the announcement of the reestablishment of relations between our two countries raised the fear — not entirely unfounded — of losing the immigration privileges Cubans had enjoyed, including the Adjustment Act, in force since 1966.

As a reference, it should be noted that in fiscal year 2015-2016 alone, about 47,000 Cubans arrived in the United States, doubling the number who had arrived in the previous fiscal year.

But, although the repeal of the wet-foot/dry-foot policy meant a severe setback for tens of thousands of Cubans, whose maximum aspiration was (and is) to settle in the United States, and despite the fact that the first impact, while not eliminating it completely, did manage to considerably reduce the flow of rafters from Cuba, the truth is that, since the beginning of 2021, the trend of escaping from Cuba by sea is increasing.

Figures don’t lie. In 2018, a total of 259 Cubans were intercepted at sea, while the figure rose to 313 in 2019. In 2020 — at the start of the pandemic — there was a pause, when only 49 Cubans were captured in their vessels, while so far in 2021 that number has increased more than six times, with 323 rafters trapped so far.

The drama of this migratory flow is accompanied by a heavy dose of tragedy and death, which is why it continues to make headlines in numerous international media. The shipwreck of a boat with 20 Cubans on board was recently revealed. Two of them were found dead, floating at sea, 10 disappeared and only eight survived, rescued by US Coast Guard vessels, so that, eventually, the culmination of their sacrifice will be to face almost certain deportation to Cuba.

The increase in the illegal exodus by sea despite the fact that Cubans no longer have the prerogative that allowed them to remain in the United States legally and access permanent residence just by being able to touch that country’s territory (dry feet), and the evidence that they prefer to assume the uncertainty of living under undocumented status, just like the rest of the millions of illegal immigrants of other nationalities in that great nation, confirm that the causes that also compel Cubans to face the dangerous journey by sea, risking their lives in pursuit of a dream that not everyone manages to achieve, rest exclusively on the failure of the sociopolitical system imposed in Cuba more than six decades ago, in the permanent economic crisis derived from it, in the absence of freedoms and rights, as well as the repression inherent to the dictatorial regime.

Meanwhile, against the grain of the most elementary common sense that indicates that no one would escape from a country where everything is fine, where a Revolution was “made for the humble,” where social justice prevails and opportunities for a better life abound, Cuban authorities, alienated to the reality that is revealed before everyone’s  eyes, and with its intrinsic cynicism, continue to point to the Adjustment Act, the embargo and the “provocations” of the different US administrations as the causes that motivate the escapes.

But the indisputable truth is that the Cuban rafters, hostages of politics on both sides of the Straits of Florida and a bone of contention between extreme positions, are a direct result of the Castro Regime. It’s a sad chapter, unknown to our pre-1959 history. The escapes have existed since the first years of the “Revolution,” the rafters crossed the waters of the Florida Strait even before the existence of the Adjustment Act and the policy of wet-foot/dry-foot, and they will continue to exist and surrender to the uncertain fate of the unpredictable Caribbean as long as there is a dictatorship that prevents all of us from manufacturing our own dream of prosperity and democracy in Cuba. There is no alternative.

Translated by Norma Whiting