More and more Cubans are fleeing by raft to U.S.

April 17, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

KEY WEST, Fla. -- They arrive here almost daily now -- thin, sun-stricken, in shock from both the voyage and the realization that they have survived.

Palms upturned, Sixto de la Riva Linares shows the open blisters he got from two days of rowing. "We felt like it would never end," he said. "But hope was the last thing we wanted to lose."

Refugees from Cuba are rafting across the Florida Straits in record numbers. The Coast Guard has picked up or assisted 295 Cubans so far in April, including 52 Friday, and 1,401 since the first of the year. And the summer sailing season has just begun.

"From now through December, we expect at least 5,000 will come," said Arturo Cobo, who directs the Transit Home for Cuban Rafters, the first stop for those either picked up by the Coast Guard or washed ashore in the Florida Keys.

Said Mr. Cobo: "We get babies, just 28 days old, and we've had grandmothers of 82. Wouldn't you have to be desperate to put them on a raft?"

Mr. De la Riva, 44, formerly a baker in Guanabo, Cuba, said he could no longer feed his family in the face of worsening economic conditions on the island. So one night earlier this month he climbed aboard a raft fashioned from four truck tire inner tubes and, with 10 others, entrusted his fate to the ocean currents and the southeast wind.

Thirty hours later, after the Cubans were spotted by a volunteer air patrol, the Coast Guard brought them into Marathon, Fla.

The quickening rate of defections from Cuba -- unequaled since the Mariel boat lift in 1980, when 125,000 refugees came to the United States -- has presented the Clinton administration with a new challenge to its immigration policy.

For years, Cubans who sailed directly from the island to the United States have been admitted and immediately released to relatives or resettlement agencies.

But in a surprise move this month, the administration tried to close an increasingly popular back-door entryway by intercepting at sea a boatload of 19 Cubans headed for Miami from the Bahamas. They all were returned to Nassau.

Although the Bahamian government allowed the return of those Cubans, the next day Prime Minister Robert A. Ingraham said no more would be accepted.

The Bahamas, a country made up of 700 islands, is already home to thousands of Haitians hoping to get to the United States, and officials are clearly worried that more Cubans will begin to use the country as a stepping stone to Miami.

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