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A Coast Guard Response Boat-Medium crew conducts search patterns by water during a search and rescue exercise near Kapalua, Maui, Oct. 24, 2019.
A Coast Guard Response Boat-Medium crew conducts search patterns by water during a search and rescue exercise near Kapalua, Maui, Oct. 24, 2019. (Jim Connor/U.S. Coast Guard)

(Tribune News Service) — Maritime migration from Cuba to South Florida this year was on course to be the busiest it has been in nearly four years. But in recent weeks, it has abruptly stopped — and U.S. officials are uncertain why.

Officials with the Coast Guard and other federal agencies responsible for policing migration confirmed this week that they have not encountered any person from Cuba at sea or on land in the Keys or anywhere else in South Florida in about 10 days. The development follows months where they were stopping several groups almost weekly and sometimes daily.

These officials have not commented on the reason why they think Cuban people have stopped leaving the island to make the dangerous journey across the Florida Straits. But, sudden absence of migration coincides with widespread demonstrations against the communist government there that began July 11, leading some experts on Cuba to consider whether the two events could be related.

“Inside of Cuba, it could also be because of the police — the high alert that all the security forces in Cuba could be making it difficult for people to leave,” said Ramón Saúl Sánchez, a prominent member of the Cuban exile community in Miami and the leader of the civil rights group Democracy Movement.

The federal government tracks migration by the fiscal year, which runs from October to October. The Coast Guard this year stopped 554 people from Cuba at sea and returned them to their homeland. That’s compared to only 49 in fiscal year 2020.

Some incidents this year ended in tragedy — most recently when nine people went missing and are now presumed dead after a boat holding 22 people capsized on July 5, about 26 miles southeast of Key West.

Then came the largest protest movement the island nation has seen in almost 30 years.

“We have not had an interdiction or a repatriation since July 10,” said Petty Officer Nicole Groll, spokeswoman for the Coast Guard in Miami.

That’s the date that a Coast Guard cutter returned 15 people to Cuba, 13 of whom were on the capsized vessel, Groll said.

Likewise, the U.S. Border Patrol has not encountered any Cuban migrants who’ve landed in South Florida since July 12 when three men and one woman arrived on shore near Sombrero Beach in the Middle Keys city of Marathon.

“There haven’t been any recent increases or upticks,” said Border Patrol spokesman Adam Hoffner.

This year was the busiest fiscal year for the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel in South Florida since 2017, when 1,468 people were stopped at sea.

However, that fiscal year included four months during which the Unites States’ “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy was still in existence. It allowed those 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 were taken back to Cuba.

The Obama administration in early 2017, in one of its final foreign policy moves, ended “wet-foot, dry-foot” as part of its efforts to restore diplomatic relations with the Cuban government.

The policy provided a significant incentive to those willing to make the dangerous journey over the Florida Straits. In fiscal year 2016, for example, 5,396 people were stopped along the way, and thousands of others successfully completed the trip.

The spike in Cuban migrants coming to Florida was likely a sign that discontent was bubbling up in the weeks leading up to the protests, said Jorge Duany, the director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

“There are a number of factors making life for ordinary Cubans very hard, from worsening shortages of food to the recent rise in COVID cases, so looking back now it appears that the increase in desperation led to a rise in migrants taking a risk to cross the Florida Straits,” Duany said.

The abrupt change in that trend probably has to do with the massive police and military presence on the island since the afternoon of July 11, when Cuban authorities mobilized hundreds of forces to quell dissent and arrest activists, many of whom are still detained. People may be waiting for things to calm down, Duany said.

U.S. officials were actually worried the opposite was going to happen as tensions between the government and protesters heightened.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio last week warned that the Cuban government would encourage an exodus of its citizens if it perceived Washington was backing the protesters — similar to the 1980 Mariel boatlift where Fidel Castro allowed 125,000 Cubans to leave.

As the week ended and the protests continued in Cuba and in South Florida, the Coast Guard issued a warning to Americans not to travel by boat to Cuba with the intention of picking up would-be migrants.

“People who violate U.S. immigration laws and illegally bring foreign nationals into the country, or who attempt to do so, may be subject to arrest, vessel forfeiture, civil and criminal fines up to $250,000 per day, and five years in prison,” the Coast Guard said in a statement last Thursday.

Duany also said that a warning issued by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to both Cubans and Haitians — who are reeling from the assassination of their president — that they would not be allowed to enter the country, may have had a temporary effect on discouraging attempts.

“Mayorkas’ comments may be also having some impact, though that kind of warning never stopped migrants from coming to the U.S. if that’s what they really want to do,” he said.

Sánchez said a number of other factors could also be at play, including simply stormy weather, that are discouraging people from trying to migrate.

But he also points to a likelihood that the Cuban government is tracking its citizens’ movements more because of the civil unrest.

There’s also the possibility that Cubans are staying because they are hopeful the protests could effect real change within the government and there’s optimism conditions could improve for its citizens.

But Sánchez said that absent real reform, he expects people will eventually begin taking to the seas again.

“When the Cubans see maybe something will change, maybe they would not leave,” Sánchez said. “Exodus will last until they regain faith in their own power to change things. Then, they will want to stay.”

©2021 Miami Herald.

Visit miamiherald.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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