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Cuban exodus persists, 20 years after 'rafter crisis'

Tuesday, 5 August 2014 - 7:51am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: AFP

Twenty years after tens of thousands of Cubans braved the sea to head to the United States in the "rafter crisis," islanders are still fleeing the communist country despite timid economic reforms.

The exodus started after the biggest protest against the decades-old regime of veteran leader Fidel Castro erupted on August 5, 1994, amid an economic crisis.

Castro, who had accused Washington of encouraging Cubans to flee illegally, hit back at US authorities by allowing "balseros" (rafters) to leave the island.

Some 37,000 people left in rickety boats over the next month, across the shark-infested Florida Straits.

The mass emigration led to secret negotiations between Cuba and its longtime nemesis, the United States, to stem the tide. By September 1994, the United States agreed to give 20,000 visas to Cubans per year while Cuba stopped allowing people to leave illegally.

While the economic crisis has subsided, and the communist regime has undertaken reforms since Raul Castro succeeded his aging brother in 2006, Cubans are still leaving in droves.

- No longer traitors -

Some 40,000 people leave the island every year, according to official figures, though now most travel legally by air.

"My main motivation for leaving is economic," a 34-year-old teacher who has started paperwork to go to Canada told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"We feel like although you can be professional, prepare and work hard, we don't make enough to make ends meet," she said, referring to Cuba's $20 average monthly salary.

Her parents, she said, have supported and worked for the communist revolution that started in 1959, "but they don't live very well."

"That bothers me. It really bothers me," the teacher said.

The Cuban government has taken some of the sting out of leaving the country.

Raul Castro has avoided calling emigrants "traitors" or "gusanos" (worms), as the regime has dubbed them in the past.

Since 2011, the government no longer seizes the homes of those who leave the island, and they are welcome to return to their homeland.

"I'm leaving to be with my two daughters, who live in Miami since November" with their mother, said a 55-year-old former pharmaceutical lab technician who got a visa to a Central American nation and plans to head to Florida from there.

Some 600,000 Cubans have legally left Cuba since 1994, according to official figures.

Miami, where 1.5 million people of Cuban origin live, remains the favorite destination of islanders, though growing number are heading to Latin American nations, Canada and Spain.

The government removed travel restrictions last year, but those who can't afford plane tickets or secure a travel visa still take the risk of heading to Florida in rafts or other makeshift craft.

Those who reach US soil get automatic US residency but Cubans caught at sea are sent back home under the US "wet foot/dry foot" policy that was implemented after the 1994 crisis.

- Secret US-Cuban negotiations -

The "rafter crisis" was the culmination of a tense summer involving hijackings of boats by people desperate to leave Cuba.

On July 13, 1994, four Cuban vessels intercepted a hijacked tugboat carrying 68 people. One of the vessels rammed the tugboat, causing it to sink and 37 people to drown.

The Cuban government insisted that it was an accident.

On August 5, 1994, police removed would-be emigrants from Havana's port before dawn.

Others gathered in Havana's famous Malecon seawall after hearing a Miami-based anti-Castro radio station announcing that a fleet would arrive from Florida to pick them up.

But the boats never arrived, sparking a protest and clashes with police. The upheaval ended hours later when Fidel Castro himself showed up at the scene.

Castro said the then president Bill Clinton's administration was encouraging illegal departures. On August 12, after people tried to hijack a tanker, Castro decided to let rafters leave the island.

While tens of thousands succeeded in leaving the country, an unknown number drowned trying to reach Florida, 150 kilometers (93 miles) to the north.

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