Cubans are fleeing the island’s economic woes by air, land and sea

MIAMI (AP) — A Cuban man endured a trip to eight countries that lasted more than a month. Another man paid a small fortune for a secret speedboat trip. A third decided to risk a dangerous passage on a makeshift raft rather than stay a little longer on the island.

Cubans are fleeing their country in the largest numbers in four decades, choosing to stake their lives and futures on a perilous journey to the United States by air, land and sea to escape economic and political woes.

Most fly into Nicaragua as tourists and slowly reach the US border, often in Texas or Arizona. A smaller number bet on a trip to the ocean. Three men who survived the odyssey spoke to The Associated Press about it.

Tens of thousands of others share the same goal. From January to July, U.S. border officials stopped Cuban immigrants from entering Mexico nearly 155,000 times, more than six times as many as during the same period in 2021. From October to August, the Coast Guard intercepted more than 4,600 Cubans , almost a six-fold increase over the entire previous year.

The vast majority are released with notices to appear in immigration court or report to immigration authorities.

In total, it is the largest flight of Cuban exiles since the Mariel boat lift of 1980, when nearly 125,000 Cubans came to the US over six months.

The exodus is fueled by Cuba’s worst economic conditions in decades – a result of tougher US sanctions and a hangover from COVID-19.

Mass street protests in mid-2021 led to widespread arrests and fears of political repression that drove more to flee. An additional enticement arose in November when Nicaragua stopped requiring visas for Cubans to promote tourism.

Two of the three men spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they fear for the safety of relatives still on the island. Here are their accounts of the trip:

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PASSING EIGHT COUNTRIES AND TWO RIVERS

Rolando José Cisneros Borroto, who worked as a street vendor in Camaguey, a city in central Cuba, said he was tired of going hungry and decided to leave his wife and three children in hopes of finding a job in the US that would supported him. family.

Borroto, 42, sold everything — his house, furniture and television — to pay for the trip, netting $13,000. His family stayed in another house owned by the wife.

After making six flights, he finally arrived in Nicaragua in June. From there he went overland to Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.

He crossed two rivers on an inflatable rubber ring, walked through mountains and along highways, and rode buses, cars and motorcycles.

While hiding from the Mexican police, he spent days drinking water from a river and eating only grass. He eventually crossed into the US south of Del Rio, Texas and turned himself in to the Border Patrol.

Borrotto was released after three days in custody and now lives in Algona, Iowa, where a cousin offered him a room in his house and food. The trip lasted 36 days.

“I never thought it would take so much work to get there,” said Boroto, who has been arrested at least three times in Cuba for selling garlic on the streets. “What one goes through on the way I do not advise anyone, but Cubans would rather die on the road than stay in Cuba.”

A DEMONSTRATION, A CHASE AND A FAST BOAT

Another Cuban, 35, took part in protests in July 2021, when thousands of people across the island called for food and a change of government. He was tried on charges of public disorder and contempt and was released after 30 days in jail to await sentencing.

He fled in February, a month before he was sentenced to five years in prison. Air travel was out of the question because he would be stopped at the airport when he showed his passport. A raft was too dangerous.

A speedboat “was the only way to get away,” the man said in an interview at the Miami office of his attorney, Wilfredo Allen. He left the island without telling his 5-year-old daughter. Only his wife, mother and one brother knew.

Being unemployed, he asked his father, who lives in Texas, for about $15,000 to pay the smugglers who gave him instructions over the phone.

Two days before the trip, he traveled 400 kilometers to Ciego de Avila, a town in the center of the island. From there, a bus picked him up with 30 other people and took them about 60 miles (100 kilometers) to one of the keys to Cuba to board the speedboat. Among the migrants were a pregnant woman and a 7-year-old boy.

They passed through the Bahamas and after 12 hours arrived at an unknown location in the Florida Keys at dawn. The boat stopped in a mangrove swamp. They then went ashore and were picked up by several cars on a highway. A Cuban friend met him at a house where he was taken.

A DESPERATE JOURNEY IN HOME DESIGNS

Cubans who can’t afford a speedboat or the $10,000 to $15,000 in travel and smuggling fees to fly to Nicaragua sometimes leave on rafts made of pipes or wood.

Among them was a 37-year-old man who occasionally worked in construction and fished. He couldn’t pay a smuggler, so he built a raft out of 10-foot aluminum tubes. In May 2021 he traveled with three friends for 22 hours until they reached south Florida.

“The first thing one thinks of is to leave, either we all starve to death slowly or make an effort,” said the man, who secretly built the raft for six months. “I knew I could die in the water, but I had to take the risk.”

He built the raft himself and kept it hidden in bushes and mangroves. On the same day of the trip, he bought a small engine that allowed him to travel at about 10 km/h.

No one knew about the trip except his three companions, his mother and his wife. For fear of being discovered, he told his companions the date of their journey only a few hours before they left.

They left late at night, rowing from a fishing port west of Havana, he said in a lengthy interview in Allen’s office. Without GPS, he navigated by the stars.

A whole day passed, and when it began to get dark again, they saw the entrance buoys to an island. They approached the shore and walked.

At least we’re alive, he thought, but they soon realized that someone was calling the authorities to report them. They immediately ran back to the boat and returned to the sea, fearing that they would be detained and deported.

They waited briefly in the water and later arrived at a beach in Key West, where a group of Cuban tourists offered to take them to Miami. The man called his wife to tell her he had arrived safely and was on his way to his in-laws’ house.

He is now seeking asylum and hopes to bring his wife and three teenage daughters to the US

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Associated Press reporters Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Andrea Rodríguez in Havana contributed to this report.

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