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'I can't buy food': As Cuba's economy worsens, desperate rafters risk their lives at sea

Mario J. Pentón, The Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

Marisol Monteagudo's son gave her a kiss goodbye as he headed out the door to spend a night out with friends in Cuba's Isla de la Juventud.

What he didn't tell her: that instead of grabbing a drink or watching a movie, they were planning to board a flimsy raft en route to Mexico.

That was three months ago. She hasn't heard from him since.

"Only a mother can understand this pain," Monteagudo, 62, said. "I know my son is alive. I just hope someone helps me find him."

In recent months, U.S. Coast Guard officials have detected a new uptick in Cuban rafters, with the number intercepted at sea in the fiscal year that started in October already surpassing the total for the previous 12 months.

Though still vastly lower than previous surges, the recent increase has sparked concern that as economic and humanitarian conditions in Cuba worsen, more will risk their lives at sea. U.S. President Joe Biden's proposal to transform the immigration system is also believed to be a driving factor.


"It's a combination of the rising desperation of a good part of the Cuban population over deteriorating life conditions, as well as the illusion of getting to the United States under a president who is more tolerant of undocumented immigrants," said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

According to U.S. Coast Guard figures, more than 100 Cubans have been caught at sea in the last five months, compared to 49 in all of the 2020 fiscal year.

Those rescued in recent weeks include three Cubans stranded on an island in the Bahamas for 33 days, surviving off of coconuts, rats, conch and snails. On Tuesday, authorities announced they'd rescued six men and two pregnant women aboard a raft made of Styrofoam and metal rods and apparently powered by a car engine.

"I threw myself into the sea because it's not possible to live like this anymore," said Beatriz, 28, who the Coast Guard found on a raft near Key West, Florida, in January. "There's nothing in the stores and with what I earn, I can't buy food for my daughters."


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