September 20, 2007

Cubans find fast, illegal path to U.S.

Carol J. Williams, The Seattle Times. September 20, 2007.

MIAMI — A multimillion-dollar human-smuggling enterprise is bringing thousands of Cubans to the United States on speedboats at a price of up to $10,000 a head, and the flourishing business has increased the number of Cubans illegally entering the country by double-digit percentages in each of the past three years.

More than 16,000 Cubans have arrived illegally this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, numbers that have alarmed law-enforcement officials and spurred increased surveillance. Most arrived on remote beaches in the Florida Keys or in Mexico, where they could enter the U.S. Southwest through official border crossings.

Under a practice known as the "wet-foot, dry-foot policy" — stemming from immigration accords negotiated between the United States and Cuba — Cubans who make it to dry land can stay and obtain legal U.S. residence. Those intercepted at sea are sent back.

Coupled with 20,000 visas issued to Cubans each year for legal immigration, the numbers arriving now rival the 35,000 who crossed the Straits of Florida in 1994 to escape the poverty that gripped communist-ruled Cuba after the Soviet Union disintegrated, ending the billions in subsidies it once sent to Havana.

The smugglers' success using so-called "go-fast" boats — light, open craft fitted with outboards enabling speeds as high as 100 mph — has convinced South Florida Cuban exiles who put up the money for their relatives' passage that they are paying for a service rather than committing a crime, authorities say.

Stepped-up Coast Guard and Border Patrol surveillance has netted record numbers of go-fast-boat operators and their human cargo. Authorities also have seized 159 of the specially outfitted vessels over the past year. Fifty-eight men have been arrested and prosecuted over the past 18 months, according to the U.S. attorney's office for in Miami.

There have been at least a half-dozen deaths resulting from erratic maneuvers by boat captains trying to evade capture or from smugglers tossing paid passengers overboard to force authorities to stop chasing the boats and rescue the jettisoned men, women and children.

More Cubans have been arriving in the United States via organized smuggling operations than by homemade rafts or other rickety craft.

Anti-smuggling patrols have intercepted go-fasts carrying as many as 65 Cubans, said Luis Diaz, a Coast Guard spokesman. The vessels are designed to carry eight to 10 passengers safely.

With the boats costing about $200,000 each and Miami sponsors paying $6,000 to $10,000 for a relative's transportation from Cuba, smugglers can recoup their investment quickly, especially when they're willing to compromise safety, he said.

The 1994 and '95 immigration agreements signed by Washington and Havana were drafted after the biggest influx of illegal Cuban immigrants since the Mariel boatlift of 1980 brought 125,000 here in a motley flotilla.

The accords mandate that at least 20,000 U.S. visas be issued to Cubans each year to provide a safety valve for the overwhelmed Cuban economy. U.S. diplomats in Havana conceded this summer that they were unlikely to issue their full quota of Cuban visas by the end of the fiscal year, blaming Cuba's officials for putting up obstacles to the import of needed supplies, equipment and personnel to process the documents. Cuba's top diplomat in Washington, Dagoberto Rodriguez, countered in August that the U.S. government was trying to instigate another dangerous illegal exodus.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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