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Repeat of '94 'Rafter' Crisis Less Likely
Wed Aug 11, 2:18 PM ET
By ANITA SNOW, Associated Press Writer
COJIMAR, Cuba - A fisherman floats on a raft off the
beach where the first wave of tens of thousands of
people set sail a decade ago and launched an exodus
that eventually pushed the United States to sharply
curtail its welcome for Cuba's boat people.
The lone fisherman, and the children frolicking on the
shore, make a placid contrast to the "crisis de los
balseros," or rafters' crisis, that unfolded at this
town six miles east of Havana in mid-August 1994.
A string of boat hijackings, unprecedented rioting and
the killing of a navy lieutenant had provoked Fidel
Castro (news - web sites) into suggesting that anyone
wanting to leave could do so. Over the next five weeks
or so, more than 30,000 islanders took the Cuban
president at his word and sailed away unhindered on
Ten years later, people here doubt it could happen
again; for one thing the voyage on precarious rafts of
plywood and inner tubes is too risky.
"There are still many who want to leave to improve
their economic situation, but don't because they don't
want to die," said Cojimar historian Ernesto Humberto
And these days, even those who leave have only a slim
chance of success unless they manage to touch American
For 35 years Cuban migrants were welcomed as refugees
from communism and granted permanent U.S. residency
almost without question. But after the 1994 crisis,
U.S.-Cuban migration accords set out the so-called
"wet-foot, dry-foot" policy, whereby Cubans who reach
U.S. land are usually allowed to stay, while most
picked up at sea are returned home.
Another factor is the economy, which has improved
since 1994, when Cuba was cast adrift by the collapse
of its ally, the Soviet Union.
And then there were the Sept. 11 attacks, which led
U.S. officials to warn that a new exodus would be seen
as an attack on national security.
The warning is not lost on Cuban officials. Castro
claims the Bush administration would love to provoke
another exodus as an excuse for invading Cuba ≈ a
theory dismissed as "patently false" by James Cason,
the chief U.S. diplomat on the island.
The upheaval of 1994 began when thousands of Cubans
crowded Havana's sea wall to cheer on the latest of
many ferry hijackings by passengers bent on reaching
"La Yuma" ≈ slang for the United States. On Aug. 5
protesters and government supporters clashed with
sticks and stones. Rioters broke windows and looted
After hijackers seized a military vessel in Mariel
port west of Havana and killed a navy lieutenant on
Aug. 8, Castro's patience wore thin.
"Massive emigration has been taking place in planes,
boats, rafts," he declared Aug. 11.
He blamed the Americans, saying: "They have created
the conditions that led to it." Then he added what
sounded like an invitation to disgruntled Cubans to
leave: "Let them spend the fuel and not us. Let them
use all their boats."
Within a few days, Cubans were heading north from
several places east and west of Havana, mostly on
"balsas." The police did nothing, and the exodus
People came from as far off as Camaguey, 300 miles to
the east, Garcia, the 74-year-old historian,
recounted. Many abandoned cars and trucks in an
emotional atmosphere of tearful farewells and gleeful
exhortations to bystanders to join them.
"People told me: 'Go, join them, take your daughter,'"
recalled 52-year-old accountant Carmen Armas, whose
home faces a beach where rafters set sail. "I was not
going to risk my baby girl's life."
Vendors sold bottled water and charged money to
inflate inner tubes. Those left behind scrambled onto
rooftops to watch.
From around Aug. 14 until the U.S. Coast Guard (news -
web sites) halted rescue operations on Sept. 23, tens
of thousands set off across the Florida Straits.
The previous time Cuba had opened its borders was
during the 1980 Mariel boat lift, when 125,000 people
sailed to the United States, mostly on seaworthy
vessels brought here by U.S. sailors. This time,
however, President Clinton (news - web sites) took
only a few days to halt the open-door policy.
So the U.S. Coast Guard shipped most of the more than
30,000 Cuban rafters picked up at sea to the U.S.
naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The rest were
housed in tents in Panama.
Most eventually emigrated permanently to the United
With the economic reforms that followed, more than
half of Cuba's 11.3 million people have access to
dollars either through remittances from relatives,
tips from tourists, off-the-books work and even as a
portion of income from government jobs. This, plus the
legalization of limited self-employment and private
farming, have gradually increased the availability of
services and goods ≈ including food.
Despite a recent modest rollback of the reforms,
people generally live better now than a decade ago. So
far this year the 1,100 Cubans picked up at sea are
outnumbered 3-1 by Haitians and 4-1 by Dominicans.
As for Castro, he turns 78 on Friday and shows no
inclination to retire. He has outlasted nine U.S.
presidents and communist officials make no secret of
their hope that the 10th, George W. Bush, will lose
the presidency to Sen. John Kerry (news - web sites),
even though the Democratic contender vows to maintain
the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
The turnaround in migration policy hasn't stopped all
Cubans from attempting the risky voyage, as the Elian
Gonzalez crisis showed. The Cuban boy was thrust into
an international custody battle in late 1999 after
surviving a boat accident that killed his mother and
most others aboard.
Thousands still leave Cuba by sea annually, but now
usually on much safer speedboats with smugglers
charging up to $8,000 each.
In June, baseball player Kendry Morales and the family
of New York Yankees pitcher Jose Contreras were
smuggled out separately on speedboats.
Last July, a group left on a 1951 Chevy pickup truck
converted to float, but were picked up at sea and sent
home. Most were repatriated again after a second try
in February on a 1959 Buick, but a couple and their
4-year-old son got a reprieve and were sent to the
Guantanamo base for further investigation of their
political asylum claims.
U.S. officials say fewer than 1,000 Cubans now reach
American shores by sea annually. Most of those picked
up at sea are sent home on U.S. Coast Guard ships,
which, under the migration accords, are allowed to
bring them into Cuban ports. The idea is to
demonstrate that those who are caught are more likely
to be sent back.
Still, Cojimar remains a common embarkation point for
Townspeople say that during a recent electricity
blackout, a large boat powered by a tractor engine
slipped away carrying an unknown number of passengers.
Police showed up the next morning to tow away a pickup
truck left behind.