Frustration emboldens latest wave of rafters
Some get set in case doors open; arrival of 6 in Dade
1999 (through May 7): 18,537
The accords call for a minimum of 20,000 visas to be issued annually but, for 1996 through 1998, there was a 'credit' of 5,000 to account for those who were paroled into the country from the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, following the 1994 rafter crisis.
''There's nothing here, nada. No food, no work, no future,'' said Jorge Herrero, 25, a veterinarian's aide, adding that the arrival of six refugees on Surfside's beach last Tuesday was ''just part of the desperation.''
A summer of economic and political frustrations in Cuba, and what one Western diplomat called ''desperate fantasies'' of another exodus like the 1980 opening of the port of Mariel to unrestricted departures, are combining to fuel a huge spike in illegal emigration.
The U.S. Coast Guard has already intercepted 837 Cuban would-be refugees on the high seas and expects to finish the year with about 3,000, the highest level since the 1994 crisis that saw 37,140 rafters intercepted.
While smugglers are making the trips safer and increasing the chances of success, Cubans and foreigners living in Cuba blame the increase in escapes more on the growing frustrations with a regime that shows no sign of progress, only retrenchment.
Cuba's government-run media have reported nothing at all on the U.S. decision to let in the six Cubans who arrived Tuesday, four of them despite the U.S. policy of repatriating any Cubans intercepted while still in the water.
But reports on the incident by Miami radio stations heard in Cuba are fueling months-old rumors there that the communist government will soon throw the doors wide open to anyone who wants to leave.
''There's a general sense that it's time to leave because life is
harder, the weather is right and more people are getting past the Coast
Guard, and this thing in Miami is adding to that,'' one Western journalist
in Havana said. Ready for departure
Ready for departure
Cuban troops had to break up about 1,500 people who rushed to the northeastern port of Gibara in early June amid rumors that it would be opened to unrestricted departures, a Florida visitor who was there reported.
Similar rumors at about the same time drew a smaller crowd to the northeastern port of Puerto Padre and swept Guantanamo, the southeastern city about 10 miles from the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay.
Hoary rumors flood Cuba almost every summer as the heat, power blackouts and the end of the vegetable growing season combine to exacerbate the already high levels of frustration among its 11 million people.
But the rumors this year have been especially dire, both reflecting and
feeding the sense of unease over the lack of political reforms and of
tangible recovery from the crisis sparked by the end of Soviet aid in
1991. Communists alerted
''This is a summer worth watching,'' said one Western journalist who canceled his usual summer vacation abroad amid the wild rumors of a mass exodus, of purges and arrests of government officials and worse.
What is really happening behind Cuba's thick veil of secrecy and government-controlled media is almost impossible to gauge, said a dozen Cubans and Western residents on the island interviewed by phone from Miami.
Havana residents said the capital was awash in rumors last week that the U.S. Coast Guard was not returning Cubans spotted inside U.S. territorial waters.
''What seems to be happening is that more people are getting through to
Miami, then they are phoning their relatives to say they made it and
giving the impression that it's getting easier,'' Havana high school
teacher Rosario Roque said. Smugglers are active
Smugglers are active
''That's the pull factor -- the increasing success, especially if you pay,'' said one U.S. citizen living in Havana. ''But there's also push factors, the things that are forcing more and more people to leave.''
Key among those factors is an eight-month-old crackdown on black marketeers, prostitution and corruption that has dried up illegal sources of income in a country where salaries are so low that it is impossible to make ends meet without resorting to illicit dealings.
''The guy who was forced to close his illegal restaurant, the doctor who can't work as an illegal taxi driver -- those are the kinds of people most likely to pay for the next boat out,'' Cuban economist Ernesto Campos said.
The U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana saw a ''noticeable upswing'' of
maybe 10 to 20 percent in the number of Cubans applying for U.S. visitor's
visas from January to April, but the numbers appear to have leveled off
since then, according to U.S. officials familiar with Cuban migration
issues. Several influences
The political opening heralded by Pope John Paul II's visit early last year never materialized, and instead President Fidel Castro's government appears bent on re-tightening some of the controls it grudgingly eased at the height of the post-Soviet crisis.
And the island appears no closer to ending the nine-year-old ''special period in time of peace,'' in essence an economic emergency declared by Castro when Soviet subsidies dried up.
The economy grew by a meager 1.2 percent last year, leaving Cubans at the same level as in 1986, while inflation rose by 2.9 percent, according to the latest report by the Central Bank of Cuba.
A recent report in the Communist Party newspaper Granma complained that
a ''food Mafia'' of private producers was keeping prices artificially
high, even threatening shopkeepers who sell at lower prices. Situation around Cuba
Situation around Cuba
''The situation is more urgent back there,'' said Herrero, the would-be emigrant from Camaguey. ''If the people in Havana get half a chicken a month, we get one-quarter. If they get one bar of soap, we get none.''
Herrero said he and his 26-year-old friend, who did not want to be identified, left Camaguey early last month after hearing the rumors of crowds gathering for a mass exodus in Gibara.
''What can you do with a salary of 275 pesos [about $12.50] when one pound of pork costs you 25 pesos, when a beer costs 20 pesos, when there's not even a bus to the beach?'' Herrero asked.
''So I sold my motorcycle, all my [music] tapes, my clothes, everything,'' he said. His friend sold his car and mechanical drafting tools, he added, ''and we came to Havana to wait for something to happen.''
They don't know when they will be able to leave. They don't have the money to pay a smuggler, or friends to give them a ride aboard a boat sneaking out.
''We'll wait for the right time,'' Herrero said. ''But for sure we'll see you in Miami. There's nothing here, no hope.''