‘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.
Last Thursday, Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced the end of the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy with immediate effect. Under the policy, introduced 22 years ago by Bill Clinton, any Cuban found at sea was deported, but any making land were admitted and after a year became entitled to a Green Card. From now on, the US will treat Cuban migrants ‘the same way we treat migrants from other countries’: in other words, if caught they’ll be sent back.
A safer choice than crossing the Florida Straits, for those with several thousand dollars to spend, has been to fly to Ecuador, for example, then set off overland for the US. Mexico, Nicaragua and other countries have already deported Cubans trying to pass through; Costa Rica has closed its borders. Last week’s announcement has left thousands stranded en route in Panama and Mexico. If they continue northwards, as many are likely to, they’ll have to join the thousands trying to cross the Rio Grande illegally before Donald Trump builds his wall. As the US spokesperson put it, at the border post ‘there’s not going to be a separate queue for Cubans.’
What is not yet clear is how actively those who enter illegally will be tracked down and deported – but can the Trump administration do anything else, given his hostility towards other Latino migrants? Obama worked with Mexico to tighten its borders against those coming from the south, and last year sent back 66,000 migrants to Honduras alone. Many Central Americans had little sympathy for migrating Cubans, given the preferential treatment they used to enjoy.
Another iniquitous arrangement, aimed at tempting Cuban doctors to emigrate, has also been ended. To get passage to the US, a Cuban medic posted abroad simply had to turn up at the US embassy and ask for ‘parole’. In November I had a drunken conversation with a tearful Cuban whose brother had just phoned from Brazil to say he’d done this.
The last Cubans admitted under the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy last Thursday were a 32-year-old electrical engineer and his seven-year-old son. They followed 36,400 others who passed through the Laredo, Texas border post last year, one-third more than the year before. In Brazil, my drunken friend’s brother is in limbo; by last Friday his paperwork to travel to the US was still not complete. At the weekend I phoned N. to find out if he boarded the raft or not: he didn’t. But he is still alive.
Original post and comments: London Review of Books