Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Another exodus of Cubans in the making

A Miami Dade Fire Rescue helicopter pulls two men from the waters off Sands Key following reports that several Cuban migrants were spotted floating with little support.
A Miami Dade Fire Rescue helicopter pulls two men from the waters off Sands Key following reports that several Cuban migrants were spotted floating with little support. WSVN 7

Only someone with a heart of stone would be unmoved by the images we’ve seen this week of young Cuban men clinging to pieces of debris in the high seas off South Florida.

Thirteen men adrift after their rickety homemade vessel split apart were spotted Monday morning four miles off the Turkey Point power plant.

Thanks to the hustle of the U.S. Coast Guard, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, a host of other government agencies — and ordinary boaters who rushed to help — nine were plucked from the seas and saved.

Two swam ashore to Elliot Key. Two were still missing as of Tuesday evening.

Such is the luck of the draw when desperate people risk their most priceless possession, their lives, to leave a country. They take the all-or-nothing gamble to chase a dream: new lives among us.

Whether the latest Cubans to arrive get to stay or not will depend on the 1996 Clinton Administration “wet-foot dry-foot” policy — those who reach land end up on the path to residency, those who don’t are repatriated via Coast Guard cutter.

Such is the luck of the draw of U.S-Cuba policy — another high-stakes gamble for those making the risky 90-mile voyage across the Florida Straits.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because the continuous trickle of Cubans washing ashore has all the markings of another exodus by sea in the making. If you’ve covered the topic of Cuban immigration as long as I have — since 1980 — none of this comes as a surprise.

Any time Cuba has sought a policy change from the U.S., the exodus card comes into play, at first a subtle looking-the-other-way as those leaving begin to trickle into South Florida and the count turns into what the New York Times aptly called “a rising tide.”

Unexpected, however, this is not. Cubans know that such windows of flight are priceless, and they have historically acted on them.

By now Cubans on the island have confirmed that the promise of reforms is another pantalla — theater for foreign consumption — to prolong the life of the same clan in power. They’ve been visited by the returning, successful balseros who fled 20 years ago. And although the balseros did suffer losses at sea and were detained at Guantánamo camps for months, I have yet to interview one who hasn’t told me he or she would risk it all again to gain the life they have now.

What could possibly keep a young man on the island, after hearing the triumphant stories of returning relatives, from seeking that same life?

The dangerous voyage on unsafe vessels is not the only route Cubans continue to take — with the hope of reaching land, dry foot — to the tune of 25,000 during the year that ended Sept. 30, according to the Times.

A startling statistic, but there’s another one more telling reported by El Nuevo Herald: In recent months, more than 3,700 have been intercepted at sea or made it to shore —– a 75 percent increase from that same period last year.

The numbers quantify the flight. But who can forget the image of a helicopter hovering over a young man clinging to a piece of debris seconds away from life or death before our eyes?

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