MIAMI - One early morning this April, Dairon Morera climbed onto a raft of aluminum tanks with 22 other people, revved up a Volvo car motor and pushed off the Cuban shore, joining a never-ending stream of islanders desperate to reach the United States.
"The biggest dream a Cuban has is to leave," said Morera, who was frustrated by government limits on his pizza business. He had no money for airplane tickets or smugglers, so decided to risk his life at sea.
Morera's journey was so turbulent that many people vomited, but all made it alive in just 20 hours. They ran ashore in the Florida Keys, hugging each other and shouting "Libertad!"
In this Aug. 26, 1994 file photo, Cuban refugees float in heavy seas 60 miles south of Key West, Fla. In the 20 years since Fidel Castro set off a high-seas humanitarian crisis by encouraging an exodus of 35,000 islanders, more than 26,000 other Cubans have risked their lives crossing the Florida Straits. Already this year, nearly 3,000 have been picked up by U.S. authorities, on a pace to double last year’s total. Experts say it shows the limits of the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy that solved the 1994 crisis.
The number of Cubans trying this perilous journey is up sharply this year, with nearly 3,000 picked up by U.S. authorities so far, double last year's pace.
The special status Cuban migrants have thanks to U.S. efforts undermine their communist government is a constant pull. While illegal U.S. immigrants fleeing poverty or violence in other countries are deported, Cubans are welcomed.
The trip can take two or three days if all goes well. But storms, strong currents, sharks and jellyfish abound. Without navigational tools or powerful engines, people can be swept far from any coast, running out of water and dying in the merciless sun.
"If we don't find them and they don't land, their chances of survival decrease every day they are out there," said Capt. Mark Fedor, the Coast Guard's enforcement chief in Miami.
Twenty years have passed since Fidel Castro eased political pressure on his communist government by telling Cubans they were free to leave. His declaration in August 1994 launched a sudden exodus of 35,000 islanders. Thousands were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and spent months behind barbed wire at the U.S. Navy base on Cuba's eastern edge.
Finally, President Bill Clinton reached a deal with Castro: The migrants at Guantanamo could come to the U.S., and at least 20,000 other Cubans a year could get U.S. visas. But Cuban authorities would resume patrolling to keep people off unseaworthy rafts, and the U.S. would enforce a "wet-foot, dry foot" policy: Anyone intercepted at sea would be returned to Cuba; any Cuban reaching U.S. soil could stay.