Article Movement & Migration

"Here, everyone knows a Cuban who had to go through the same hardships."

Since the 1959 revolution, Cubans have been using makeshift rafts to get to Florida. Can we compare these refugees with those in the Mediterranean Sea?

Put together the words refugees and Mediterranean Sea and most people will have the same image in mind: old fishing boats packed with people, human smugglers with dollar signs in their eyes and hundreds of drownings. Another continent, another sea; a similar situation has been going on for decades. Ever since the Cuban revolution people have used boats, often made by themselves, to make the 150 km sea crossing to Florida - by comparison, the distance between Tripoli in Libya to Lampedusa in Italy is roughly twice as long. Cubans arriving in the US are automatically granted political asylum, according to the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966.

To curb the amount of rafters coming to the US, the Clinton administration added the wet foot/dry foot policy, which states that anyone intercepted in the waters by the US Coast Guard is automatically sent back to Cuba. The theory behind this is that Cubans can apply for one of the 20,000 visas the US issues yearly to Cubans, so they don’t have to take the dangerous trip through the shark-infested waters of the Florida Straits.

Since US President Obama and Cuban President Raoul Castro renewed diplomatic relations last December, Cubans are afraid the legislation for political asylum will change. To reach the US, Cubans like Raidel Simón Grencibia have to cross waters that are known for its sharks and strong currents to the Atlantic Ocean.

“The moment we heard that the US and Cuba started their talks, everybody went crazy,” Grencibia says, a Cuban who arrived a month prior to the US by crossing the Florida Straits in a makeshift boat with eight friends. “Everywhere people started to build boats in secret, because people feared being locked up on the island.”

Human smugglers and makeshift rafts

Grencibia used a boat soldered together from used car parts that he and his friends made in a secret hideout in the jungle. It is the usual way Cubans who want to leave the island by water work; they steal material from their workplace, or trade materials as secretively as possible. The resulting rafts are often an interesting sight, of which a few are exhibited in a botanical garden in the Florida Keys: rubber boats strengthened with an iron frame, sheets of corrugated iron soldered together. As may be expected, the boats don’t always stay afloat the whole trip; Grencibia had to swim the last three hours of his trip. Many people, however, never make it.

Although human smuggling is fought against heavily, there are still people making money out of moving immigrants from Cuba to Florida in speedboats at $ 10,000 a head. This doesn’t, however, happen on the scale as it does currently in the Mediterranean Sea, where big smuggling networks are active and stories surface of people being forced on full boats at gunpoint. Since 9/11, homeland security in the US has much more funding, which provides the US Coast Guard with many boats to patrol the waters. Though used to prevent Cubans from reaching US soil, a side effect of the Coast Guard boats - and the many cruise ships out there - is that people on sinking rafts are often saved before drowning.

Where Florida has the federal government behind them, Italy had to deal with the boat people alone, until recently. As a reaction to the 150 drownings in Lampedusa in 2013, Italy started the Mare Nostrum Emergency Rescue Programme. After the programme was stopped a year later many boat immigrants drowned, resulting in a new EU called Triton, focused on border protection rather than search and rescue.


Italy threatened to issue Schengen visas to immigrants if no deal was struck soon. However, EU talks seem to be leading up to negotiating a possible 18 months of detention for asylum seekers. Deportations in the Florida Straits are a lot quicker; Cubans intercepted at sea by the Coast Guard camp out on deck of the cutters and are deported back to Cuba as soon as possible.

Although the deal with Cuba is to take back the deportees without punishing them, interviews with different recent Cuban arrivals in Florida reveal a different image; the deportees are escorted by the Cuban police as they walk down the streets, which brands them as criminals. Their attempt at fleeing the island is marked in their documents, which makes it impossible for them to find any specialised work.

“During a job interview they will say they do not trust you, because you might leave Cuba any day,” says Yuniesky Alcolea García, who arrived in the US on the 6th of June.

Applause for the people coming to ‘steal jobs’

Grencibia describes how people on the beach on the Florida Keys started to applaud when they saw him and his friends arrive. Someone ran to the nearest McDonald’s to buy the Cubans some burgers and drinks.

This doesn’t surprise kayak fishing guide Randy Morrow, who lives in the Keys: “Well, many Cubans have ended up staying in the south of Florida, so here everyone knows a Cuban who had to go through the same hardships to get here.”

The discussion about immigrants in the US bears similarities to that in Europe; some people are afraid that immigrants will take their jobs and see multiculturalism as a threat to the original Anglo-American Protestant culture. The issue in Europe is more the fear of Islam taking dominance over Christianity, whereas in the US one of the main issues is language: in certain areas in the south of Florida, the main spoken language is Spanish.

Immigrants always have to start at the bottom rung of the social ladder. But as the concept of the American Dream is - in theory - open to everyone, more and more Cubans are to be found in the higher levels of (Florida) society. Take Marco Rubio for instance, son of Cuban migrants and senator of Florida, who is putting himself forward as a Republican presidential candidate for 2016.

In the meantime, contracts have been signed to renew a ferry line between Florida and Cuba. Although the travel connection between the countries will improve, it will probably soon be harder for Cubans who run away from the Castro regime to receive political asylum, as did Grencibia and hundreds of others.

Image: Eline van Nes

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