MIAMI (AP) — Rodolfo Lledes departed Cuba and headed for Florida with 26 others on a motorized raft made of empty 55-gallon drums. Claudia Cruz Perez wound her way on buses, boats and planes through South America to the U.S.-Mexico border, eventually landing in Miami.
Many migrants like them make the journey because of what they call appalling conditions or political persecution, but also because of the U.S. "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy that shields Cubans from deportation if they make it to U.S. soil. Now, the death of longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's hardline stance on curbing illegal immigration have cast new uncertainty over that decades-old policy.
Arrivals from the communist-ruled island already had surged in the past two years because of fears that the policy would be discontinued as President Barack Obama sought warmer relations, the U.S. Coast Guard has said, and now officials are on alert for another uptick in sea crossings.
While it's too soon to note a definitive trend, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted 38 Cubans in the South Florida Straits and brought them back to Cuba on Thursday. Under "wet-foot, dry-foot," migrants intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba.
"It's not right to recommend that anyone leave by raft, because it's a trip that can lead to death," said Lledes, a Castro opponent who fled Cuba after being sent to a work camp and being blacklisted from getting a job. "But the reality of living in Cuba can lead to that, and much more."
Lledes made his crossing in September 1994, during the so-called Cuban rafter crisis. The Coast Guard stopped the homemade vessel, and he was sent to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. In all, about 30,000 rafters were held at Guantanamo during the crisis. Lledes was later flown to the U.S., where he worked as a truck driver in Miami. He became an American citizen, bought a house and is now retired at age 71.
Since Obama ordered restoration of diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana in December 2014, the U.S. Coast Guard has noted a significant uptick each year in the number of Cuban migrants who brave the dangerous Straits of Florida and arrive on the coast of South Florida, the islands of the Florida Keys or elsewhere.
During the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, U.S. authorities captured, intercepted or chased away 7,411 Cuban migrants — an increase over 3,737 in the 2014 fiscal year and 2,218 in 2013. An additional 827 tried to make the trip since October, the Coast Guard said. It's not clear how many others have died at sea.
Castro's death is unlikely to significantly change living conditions in Cuba, as Raul Castro continues the communist rule he took over from his ailing brother in 2008. That means migrants will likely continue to set sail, especially if there is even a perception that the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy may be restricted.
"It's almost impossible to think that there's an improved future in Cuba under the current conditions," said Pedro Roig, senior research associate at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. "It's very feasible that any Cuban, man or woman, would want to seek another horizon under these laws."
Cruz Perez made her circuitous journey in 2015, arriving in October of that year after what she said had been concern among those on the island about the future of U.S.-Cuba immigration policy.
But more important, she said, was daily survival in Cuba, where necessities like soap and toilet paper often are hard to obtain. She doesn't think Fidel Castro's death alone will have an immediate impact, given that Raul Castro has handled the nation's governing since 2008. People will still come to the U.S. to seek work and send money and goods to relatives left behind, or eventually bring loved ones to the U.S.
"If one has children, one almost has to leave the island to seek a better life and a better future for them," said Cruz, who works a night shift at a printing factory. "That is why people risk their lives to leave."
Associated Press video journalist Josh Replogle contributed to this report.