The scene was captured on a grainy cell phone video — the moment nine Cuban men stepped onto American soil for the first time.
“Welcome to the land of freedom,” one security guard was heard saying to the men in the video, recorded this summer on Key Biscayne in Miami.
They’re part of a wave of migrants that are arriving from Cuba, larger numbers than have been seen in years arriving by land and by sea. And many of them are arriving on makeshift rafts, cobbled together from spare car parts, styrofoam and whatever else is at hand.
“We’re seeing the highest migration levels that we’ve seen in the past five years,” said Capt. Mark Fedor, the Chief of Enforcement for the U.S. Coast Guard, 7th District, which includes the Caribbean. “If you look at the numbers compared to the previous year, there was a 75% increase in terms of Cuban migration. Since 2011, it’s about a 95% increase.”
The question is why more Cubans are making the risky journey. Experts cite a variety of factors, from good weather conditions in the Caribbean to the Cuban government’s decision to make it easier to travel outside of the island. And many recent migrants say the conditions in Cuba are getting worse.
“When you are 20 years old, you think everything will be OK. Then when you are 30, you realize nothing is OK. That the country is in a bad state, and that’s when you say now or never,” said Harold, a 34-year-old who completed the journey from Cuba to the United States last week, passing through Mexico. He traveled to Miami, seeking help from the Church World Service.
He worked as a teacher on the island — and he had another reason for leaving.
“In Cuba, you cannot be a teacher and be gay, because they don’t coincide. So I think it’s a very high price to pay to be gay,” he said. “I’m 34 years old, and I haven’t been able to live my life.”
Credit: Bradley Blackburn, Darwin Phillips