Cubans are migrating to the United States in the greatest numbers in over a decade, and for most of them the new way to get north is first to head west –to Mexico – in a convoluted route that avoids the U.S. Coast Guard.
American officials say the migration, which has grown into a multimillion-dollar-a-year smuggling enterprise, has risen sharply because many Cubans have lost hope that Raul Castro, who took over as president from his brother Fidel in 2006, will make changes that will improve their lives. Cuban authorities contend that the migration is more economic than political and is fueled by Washington’s policy of rewarding Cubans who enter the United States illegally.
In fact, unlike Mexicans, Central Americans and others heading to the southwestern border of the United States, the Cubans do not have to sneak across. They just walk right up to U.S. authorities at the border, benefiting from lax Mexican enforcement and relying on Washington’s “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which gives them the ability to become permanent residents if they can reach U.S. soil.
That is what Jose Luis Savater, 45, a refrigerator repairman from Havana, did in early October to reach south Florida, which remains the goal for most migrating Cubans.
It took Savater almost four days to reach Isla Mujeres, Mexico, a coastal island, in a rickety boat made of wood, fiberglass and aluminum and powered by a jury-rigged motor used for irrigating fields. The 15 men and one woman with him took turns bailing.
“It’s extremely dangerous,” Savater recounted by telephone from Cancun. “I saw myself dead. I suffered a lot.”
But his next step was far easier: a flight to Matamoros, a border town just across from Brownsville, Texas, with the help of money wired from relatives in South Florida. Some American officials are calling this new approach – Cubans’ strolling up to desert border stations and seeking political asylum – dusty foot.
Statistics make it clear that Cubans now believe that although it is considerably longer, the route through Mexico from the tiny bayside village of Cortes and other new launching spots on the western side of Cuba increases their odds of reaching Miami.