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Cubans flee economic problems on the island by air, land and sea

MIAMI– A Cuban endured a journey through eight countries that lasted more than a month. Another man paid a small fortune for a sneaky speedboat ride. A third decided to risk a perilous journey aboard a homemade raft rather than stay a moment longer on the island.

Cubans are fleeing their country in the largest numbers in more than four decades, choosing to risk their lives and futures on a perilous journey to the United States by air, land and sea to escape economic and political trouble.

Most fly to Nicaragua as tourists and slowly make their way to the US border, often to Texas or Arizona. A smaller number bets on a sea voyage. Three men who survived the ordeal spoke to The Associated Press about it.

Tens of thousands of people share the same goal. From January to July, U.S. border authorities apprehended Cuban immigrants entering from Mexico nearly 155,000 times, more than six times more than the same period in 2021. From October to August, the Coast Guard intercepted more than 4,600 Cubans, almost six times more. throughout the previous year.

The vast majority are released with notices to appear in immigration court or appear before immigration authorities.

In total, it is the largest flight of Cuban exiles since the Mariel boatlift in 1980, when nearly 125,000 Cubans arrived in the United States in a six-month period.

The exodus is fueled by Cuba’s worst economic conditions in decades, a result of tightening US sanctions and a hangover from COVID-19.

Mass street protests in mid-2021 triggered widespread arrests and fears of political oppression causing more people to flee. An additional incentive came in November, when Nicaragua stopped requiring visas from Cubans to promote tourism.

Two of the three men spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they fear for the safety of relatives still on the island. These are their accounts of the trip:

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CROSSING EIGHT COUNTRIES AND TWO RIVERS

Rolando José Cisneros Borroto, who worked as a street vendor in Camagüey, a city in central Cuba, said he was tired of going hungry and decided to leave his wife and three children in the hope of finding a job in the US.

Borroto, 42, sold everything — his house, furniture and television — to pay for the trip, raising $13,000. His family stayed in another house that belongs to his wife.

After taking six flights, he finally arrived in Nicaragua in June. From there she traveled overland to Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.

He crossed two rivers on an inflatable rubber ring, walked mountains and highways, and rode buses, cars, and motorcycles.

While hiding from the Mexican police, he spent days drinking water from a river and eating only grass. He eventually crossed into the US south of Del Rio, Texas, and surrendered to Border Patrol.

Borroto was released after three days in detention and now lives in Algona, Iowa, where a cousin offered him a room in his house and food. The trip lasted 36 days.

“I never thought it would take so much work to get there,” said Borroto, who has been arrested at least three times in Cuba for selling garlic on the streets. “I don’t advise anyone what happens on the road, but Cubans prefer to die on the road rather than stay in Cuba.”

A PROTEST, A CHASE AND A SPEED BOAT

Another Cuban, 35, participated in the protests in July 2021, when thousands of people across the island clamored for food and a change of government. He was tried for public disorder and contempt and was released after 30 days in jail awaiting sentencing.

He fled in February, a month before he was sentenced to five years in prison. Air travel was out of the question because he would be stopped at the airport by showing his passport. A raft was too dangerous.

A speedboat “was the only way to escape,” the man said in an interview at the office of his Miami attorney, Wilfredo Allen. He left the island without telling his 5-year-old daughter. Only his wife, mother and a brother knew.

Unemployed, he asked his father, who lives in Texas, for about $15,000 to pay the smugglers who gave him directions over the phone.

Two days before the trip, he traveled 400 kilometers (250 miles) to Ciego de Ávila, a city in the center of the island. From there, a bus picked him up along with 30 other people and took them about 100 kilometers (60 miles) to one of Cuba’s keys to board the speedboat. Among the migrants were a pregnant woman and a 7-year-old boy.

They passed through the Bahamas and, after 12 hours, arrived at an unknown location in the Florida Keys, at dawn. The boat stopped in a mangrove swamp. They then came ashore and were picked up by several cars on a highway. A Cuban friend received him in a house where they took him.

A DESPERATE JOURNEY ON A HOMEMADE RAFT

Cubans who can’t afford a speedboat or the $10,000 to $15,000 to travel and smuggle fees to fly to Nicaragua sometimes flee on rafts made of pipes or wood.

Among them was a 37-year-old man who occasionally worked construction and fished. He couldn’t pay a smuggler, so he built a raft out of 10-foot aluminum tubes. In May 2021, he traveled with three friends for 22 hours to reach South Florida.

“The first thing one thinks of is leaving, that either we all die of hunger little by little, or we make an attempt,” said the man, who secretly built the raft for six months. “He knew he could die in the water, but he needed to take the risk.”

He built the raft by himself and kept it hidden among bushes and mangroves. The same day of the trip, he bought a small motor that allowed him to travel at about 6 mph (10 kph).

Nobody knew about the trip except his three companions, his mother and his wife. For fear of being discovered, he told his companions the date of his trip just a few hours before leaving.

They left late at night, rowing from a fishing port west of Havana, he said in a lengthy interview at Allen’s office. Without GPS, they navigated by the stars.

A whole day passed, and when night began to fall again, they saw the entrance buoys to an island. They approached the shore and walked.

“At least we’re alive,” he thought, but soon realized that someone was calling the authorities to report them. They immediately ran back to the boat and headed back to the sea, fearing that they would be detained and deported.

They waited for a while in the water and then arrived at a beach in Key West, where a group of Cuban tourists were offered a ride to Miami. The man called his wife to tell her that she had arrived safely and that he was going to her in-laws’ house.

He is now seeking asylum and hopes to bring his wife and three teenage daughters to join him in the US.

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Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Andrea Rodríguez in Havana contributed to this report.

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