Cuba

Coast Guard: Nine Cuban rafters perish at sea; 18 survivors saved by cruise ship

A screengrab from a YouTube video reportedly taken on the Brilliance of the Seas Friday, March 18, 2016 shows crews members helping to rescue Cuban rafters.
A screengrab from a YouTube video reportedly taken on the Brilliance of the Seas Friday, March 18, 2016 shows crews members helping to rescue Cuban rafters. MIAMI HERALD SCREENGRAB

A Royal Caribbean cruise ship saved 18 Cuban migrants from the sea Friday, who then told the Coast Guard that nine other members of their group died attempting the treacherous journey to Florida.

The U.S. Coast Guard said in a statement that the Brilliance of the Seas picked up the 18 people west of Marco Island, in the Gulf of Mexico, off Southwest Florida. The survivors in turn reported that they lost a third of their group in the ill-fated crossing from Cuba.

They “were reportedly suffering from severe dehydration and claimed they left Cuba 22 days ago where nine of the migrants perished at sea during the journey,” the Coast Guard said. The 18 survivors were being taken to Cozumel, Mexico, the next port of call for the 14-year-old, 2,142-passenger ship.

A crude homemade video posted on YouTube Friday by a man identifying himself as a ship passenger appeared to show crew members in a rescue boat helping exhausted people onto the cruise ship — and two rafts in the distance with sails.

“It’s crazy how desperate they were to get to the U.S. It makes me feel so grateful for being an American,” wrote the videographer, identified as Nick deMatteo. He said a ship passenger spotted the “refugees” at about 5:30 Friday morning.

The Coast Guard’s Miami division chief of enforcement, Capt. Mark Gordon, issued a statement of “our deepest condolences to the families of the nine people who recently did lose their lives.” He cautioned that “unfortunately, tragedy is all too common when taking to the sea in homemade vessels with no safety or navigation equipment.”

The Coast Guard says it has detected a steady increase in “illegal maritime migration attempts” from Cuba to the southeastern United States since the two countries began normalizing relations 15 months ago. At issue may be fears that, with normal relations, the U.S. would repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to stay as refugees. Those who don’t reach the United States, however, and are intercepted at sea are typically repatriated under the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy.

“The dangerous waters of the Florida Straits can be unforgiving for the unprepared on ill advised and illegal voyages,” Gordon said. “Immigration policies have not changed, and we urge people not to take to the ocean in un-seaworthy vessels. It is illegal and extremely dangerous.”

The Brilliance of the Seas is among the older and smaller ships in a fleet that includes the largest cruise ships in the world.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

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