HAVANA -- The number of Cubans leaving their homeland by sea has increased sharply in the past year and led to several high-profile deaths in the Florida Straits.
U.S. authorities said that 2,504 Cubans have been intercepted at sea so far in 2005, up from 1,499 in all of 2004. The number of Cuban migrants reaching South Florida by sea also increased during the 12 months ended Sept. 20 to 2,530 from 954 during the previous year.
"There are any number of reasons why people want to come to the U.S. They are looking for opportunity," said Steve McDonald, assistant chief patrol agent with the U.S. Border Patrol. "But we are not seeing any indications of the beginning of a mass exodus."
The last major Cuban immigration crisis took place in 1994, when more than 37,000 Cubans were interdicted in the Florida Straits by U.S. authorities during the so-called "rafters crisis."
Since then, the number of Cubans taking to the sea has fallen dramatically as Cuba's economy has rebounded modestly from the crisis caused by the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union, then Cuba's main benefactor.
The United States also has stepped up interdiction in the Florida Straits as part of its "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy, which generally allows Cubans who make it to U.S. soil to stay while those picked up at sea are sent back.
But that policy has come under increasing attack by some Cuban-Americans after three migrants died at sea during recent U.S. Coast Guard interdiction operations.
In one case, a smuggler's boat packed with 37 migrants capsized 65 miles south of Key West, Fla., after being intercepted by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter. Two migrant women died in the Nov. 5 incident.
A 6-year-old boy died in a similar incident three weeks earlier.
"Wet-foot, dry-foot has not deterred people from escaping Cuba on rafts," said Alfredo Mesa, executive director of the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, a powerful exile group. "It's just made it more dangerous."
Mesa argued that the United States should revert to its pre-1994 policy when all Cubans intercepted at sea were taken to U.S. shores and allowed to stay.
But Wayne Smith, a former top U.S. diplomat in Cuba, said that eliminating the wet-foot, dry-foot policy would spark a huge exodus from Cuba.
"Some Cubans in Miami would be delighted, but I don't think the rest of the country would be," he said.
Gary Marx writes for the Chicago Tribune.