It has been a more than usually bizarre week for the US Coastguard based in the Lower Keys, and their unhappy work has been a reminder how lucky we are to live on this side of the Straits of Florida. Five dead Cubans washed ashore among the Lower Keys, as well as three live migrants.
Because I work in the 911 center in Key West a phone call from some local night owl announcing they have come across a group of cheerful, disheveled, wet Cubans fresh off a boat is not uncommon. We send officers and an ambulance to make sure they stay put and are in good health while we call the Border Patrol, nowadays known more properly as ICE and they take them off to Homestead for processing before they release them. The dry foot policy means Cubans fleeing Communism get to stay of they set foot ashore anywhere in the US.
It's a policy that needs to change and soon. With daily scheduled flights leaving the US now for Cuba it's obvious that something will change soon, as soon as Congress can find time. And Cubans know it too so anyone with plans to start a new life in the US is figuring out ways to get afloat in some kind of bath tub to come to the US. They've done it in a homemade amphibious 1951 truck which was stopped and sunk by the Coastguard about ten miles from the Keys after the passengers were removed. They were sent back to Cuba where the driver of the truck then went to Mexico and walked into the US and settled in Miami:
Not all rafters as the balseros are known in English make it to the US. Some craft like this one displayed at the East Martello museum are incredibly flimsy. The sign on the wall behind it asks the last Cuban to leave the island to please turn out the lights...
And if you check local commentary on Facebook or in the newspaper people who live here don't greet the new immigrants with much joy. There is usually a lot of talk about how the government settles the migrants and offers them services that aren't available to locals etc... but it has never seemed to me that people so energetic and driven and imaginative come to the US to sit on their backsides. They can do that in Ciba just fine if they want to. Below you can see a picture I took of a Cuban Chug on Boca Chica Beach with old Cheyenne peaking round the bow. The hull has been painted with "USCG OK" which means they checked it and cleared it. You'll see these boats on many beaches slowly rotting away slowly as no one is paid to remove them.
This week five bodies washed up and the only speculation anyone could figure out was that something went wrong at sea and that happens a lot and we living here in comfort don't ever get to know about the extent of the lives lost. The Straits of Florida are dangerous waters. I've crossed them several times in stout modern sailboats and I have got caught in very nasty weather and been scared by the force of the waves as the wind blows against the Gulf Stream current. To make a 90 mile journey across from Havana in this blows my mind:
Luckily in this case there were survivors who presumably told their story to investigators. It seems the rafters left Cuba September 20th and capsized the next day and floated helplessly across. Two bodies hit the beach, three were found at sea and three people, incredibly, survived. Who knows who else may be out there dead or possibly even alive. It's been a bit of a horror show.
I hope the wet-foot dry-foot policy is abolished soon and people stop trying to come across like this. But there are so many things that need attention which are currently jammed up in our dysfunctional government so I suppose nothing here will change. When you see what we put to sea in to go fishing or swimming or snorkeling it makes you think about what boating means in Cuba.
This week we got a reminder that tons of unseen, unknown people are ready to risk it all to get here.