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'The hope is gone': Why more Cubans than ever are risking their lives to sail to Florida

U.S. Border Patrol
People from Cuba made landfall in the Florida Keys in December 2022 on this handmade boat, the U.S. Border Patrol said. Federal agencies have seen a significant increase in maritime migration this year.

Cuba is currently seeing the largest and fastest exodus since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Huge numbers of Cubans are showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border and many others are landing by boat in the Florida Keys.

The U.S. Coast Guard has intercepted more than 3,000 Cubans on the way to Florida since Oct. 1st of this year — which is more than half of the number from the whole of last year.

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On the most recent South Florida Roundup, we spoke to New York Times investigative correspondent Frances Robles and WLRN Keys reporter Gwen Filosa about the situation.

“The hope is gone from Cuba and that's why they're leaving,” said Robles, who lives in Key West.

From Dec. 11-13, more than 120 Cubans landed in the Keys on homemade boats. Filosa said that locals are used to seeing people arrive - some see as many as six boats a day.

“It’s become part of living here,” Filosa added.

Once people arrive, boats are tagged by Florida Wildlife officers and abandoned, according to Filosa. But a collection of Cuban rafts can be seen at Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden and art exhibits of the rustic boats at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum.

“It's amazing to see it, and they have information posted about the migration frenzy,” Filosa said.

More Cubans have left the communist island of Cuba in the past year and a half than those who fled during the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 and the rafter crisis of 1994 combined, according to a report by Bloomberg.

“People wouldn't be doing it if their neighbors, their siblings weren't successful in those journeys,” Robles said.

“And even seeing the number of people who die at sea — the Coast Guard says 100 Cubans have died since 2020 trying to make this voyage — that is still not stopping people.”

In conversations Robles has had with Cubans living on the island, some have brought up the political repression, being oppressed by poverty and the lack of freedom as reasons for wanting to leave. She mentioned that a fair number of them participated in the protests that took place last summer and were arrested.

“[It] is just too much for a lot of people to bear,” Robles said.

For the first time since 2020, Cuba has agreed to accept deportees from the United States. Cuban migrants who crossed the border from Mexico undocumented will be sent back to Cuba in the coming weeks.

But there is also hope. The Biden administration announced recently that they're going to start processing visas again — about 20,000 a year.

“I think that they're hoping that several different things taken together will try to stem the tide,” Robles said. “But unless the conditions on the island improve, they have quite a task ahead of them.”

On the South Florida Roundup, we also spoke about the property insurance bill that was passed in Tallahassee and how the collapse and bankruptcy of the bitcoin exchange FTX are impacting South Florida.

Listen to the full episode above.

Ammy Sanchez is a junior at the Honors College at Florida International University, studying organizational communications.