Onlookers scratched their heads at a peculiar scene off the coast of Havana on Monday: Cuba’s coast guard intercepted nearly a dozen passengers from a dilapidated blue craft raft with an American flag painted along the bow.
Handmade rafts are nothing out of the ordinary in Cuba, where countless ships set out in an attempt to reach Florida’s shores. Growing waves of migrants have left the Caribbean island in the past year by land, air and sea, an exodus fueled by a complex mix of deepening and worsening crises in Cuba.
Many of these migrants, often called balseros, often leave on rafts from remote parts of the island, shrouded in darkness to avoid interception.
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On Monday, The Associated Press, amid a group of journalists struggling to decipher what was happening, watched passengers being taken from the raft in broad daylight, less than 500 meters from the US Embassy, right next to the iconic boardwalk of the city.
The coast guard then dragged the boat away, journalists running after it, along the Malecón and toward a harbor as a Spanish-speaking onlooker yelled “Let them go!” Many more Cuban viewers looked confused.
The Cuban International Press Center acknowledged in a text message that the event had occurred but said it could not provide further details.
Basic access to information is rare and reality can overwhelm the imagination in Cuba. But the incident occurred at a remarkable time.
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Last month, the government strongly denied killing seven people, including a two-year-old girl, when its coast guard collided with the boat of a group of migrants traveling at night farther offshore. Some survivors accused the government of repeatedly ramming the ship.
Most emigrants seek to enter the United States through the US-Mexico border, where Cubans have been detained nearly 221,000 times this fiscal year, an increase of 471% over the previous year, according to Bureau data. US Customs and Border Protection.
That migration, combined with the reopening of US visas and consular services on the island, has accelerated talks between the two governments, which share a historically tense relationship.
The latest came this weekend, when three visiting Democratic congressmen met with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel and other Cuban leaders. The lawmakers left the island on Monday, US officials told the AP.
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The US authorities also noted that migration was one of the issues discussed.