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Nine people are missing in the ocean off the Keys, and the Coast Guard continues searching

The Island-class patrol boat USCGC Maui (WPB 1304) navigates through the Arabian Gulf. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Meleesa Gutierrez/Released)

The U.S. Coast Guard continued its search Wednesday afternoon for nine people missing in the ocean off the Florida Keys.

They were among 22 people who left Cuba Monday night on a boat on the way to South Florida as Tropical Storm Elsa was preparing to hit the area with rough seas, heavy winds and rain.

The surviving passengers told the Coast Guard that they left around 8 p.m. and their vessel capsized as they crossed the Florida Straits.

The crew of a merchant ship, the Western Carmen, called Coast Guard Sector Key West at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday after spotting four people in the water, according to the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard cutter Thetis arrived at the scene, about 26 miles southeast of Key West, and its crew rescued nine men and four women from the ocean, the agency said.

Another cutter, the William Trump, arrived later to help in the search and rescue. In all, the Coast Guard has two cutters, two helicopters and an airplane searching for the people.

The incident is the latest in a series of maritime tragedies involving a growing number of Cubans willing to make the risky journey across the Florida Straits, often in dangerously unseaworthy boats, to escape their homeland — this, despite the fact that the legal incentive to do so went away four years ago.

At the end of May, two people died and 10 others went missing and are now presumed dead after their boat sank while sailing from Cuba to South Florida. Eight others in the party were rescued by the Coast Guard.

In November, 17 young men from the northern Cuban neighborhood of Cárdenas were never seen nor heard from again after they set sail for the U.S.

In the beginning of 2017, the Obama administration, in one of its final foreign policy decisions, ended the so-called “wet foot, dry foot.” The Cold War-era policy allowed those from the Communist nation who set foot on U.S. soil above the high-water mark to stay in the country and apply for permanent residency after a year. Those caught at sea by the Coast Guard or U.S. Customs and Border Protection were sent back to Cuba.

When the policy ended, the steady arrival of migrants from Cuba to South Florida seen in the months prior nearly stopped altogether. While almost 5,400 people from Cuba were stopped at sea in fiscal year 2016, that number dropped to just 259 in fiscal year 2018. Migration is tracked by the fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1.

By fiscal year 2020, less than 50 people were caught trying to make the trip.

That has changed in recent months, with more than 500 people and counting stopped, with three more months left in this fiscal year.

Why they’re taking the risk

“In my judgment, the recent increase in the number of undocumented Cuban immigrants detained at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard is due to a combination of several factors,” Jorge Duany, professor and director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, said Wednesday.

For one, Duany said the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen in Cuba, which has furthered the already deteriorating quality of life among the country’s population caused by the collapse of its tourism industry.

The country is also suffering through an economic recession, Duany said, that is “expressed in the scarcity of food, fuel, and other basic needs for most Cuban citizens.”

The Biden administration also has continued tough embargo policies from the Trump era, which include the prohibition of Cuban-American remittances through money transfer companies that deal with military-controlled state agencies. Additionally, the tightened embargo basically resulted in the elimination of commercial and charter flights from the U.S. to Cuba, Duany said.

Cubans are also having difficulties obtaining visas to either move to the U.S. or visit relatives there. That is because the United States government closed the consular section of its embassy in Havana in September 2017 following a series of what some officials said were “sonic attacks” that caused dozens of staff members to become ill.

Finally, Duany said the pace of political repression by the Cuban government against dissidents has picked up significantly.

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© 2021 Miami Herald

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