‘We’re leaving,’ my Cuban friend N. told me in November. ‘We’re building a raft.’ I was shocked, partly because he planned to leave, partly because of the way he planned to do it. I consulted another friend, who’d spent several months in a coastguard team, hauling people out of the water when their rafts fell apart. ‘He’s mad,’ he said. ‘He mustn’t do it. Hardly any of them make it, it’s far too dangerous.’ I spoke to N. to try to dissuade him; he was unconvinced. He’d just had a phone call from Miami: a young neighbour had left a week or two before, the raft had reached the Everglades and some Miami-Cuban fisherman had spotted them and shown them where to land. They’d made it.
Neither Cuba nor the US is open about the numbers of refugees who try to cross the Florida Straits. The 100-mile journey can take several days. Fewer than half of those who set out are believed to make it: perhaps a quarter are returned to Cuba by either nation’s coastguard; the rest die at sea. In the 58 years since the Cuban revolution, 80,000 people or more may have drowned, died from thirst or exposure, or been eaten by sharks.