By Sarah Marsh
HAVANA (Reuters) - The flood of Cubans to the United States via perilous journeys by sea or land has turned into a mere trickle since the end of the U.S. preferential asylum policy for them, data obtained by Reuters shows.
Critics of the Castro government used to point to the exodus as proof that Cubans preferred capitalism over socialism. Havana blamed it on the U.S. policy granting automatic residency to virtually all Cubans who arrived on U.S. turf.
The Obama administration on Jan. 12 repealed this special treatment as part of the ongoing normalization of relations between the former Cold War foes.
President Donald Trump is not expected to reverse the last-minute move, given his anti-immigration stance, and even many Cuban-American Republicans reluctantly backed it, citing abuses of U.S. generosity.
"They've closed the door to us and cut our wings," said Juan, a 27-year-old electrician who had been planning to attempt for a fourth time to reach the United States by raft when the policy shift occurred.
The U.S. Coast Guard said it intercepted 49 Cubans off the coast of Florida in February and March this year, compared with 407 in the same period in 2016. Dominicans now make up the bulk of migrants intercepted off the coast of Florida, whereas previously, it had been Cubans.
Just 86 Cubans arrived at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border in February and March to make credible claims of fear of return to their home country, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.
That compares with 11,892 Cubans who arrived at those ports in the same period last year, seeking relief under the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, which allowed any Cuban who reached U.S. soil to stay but returned any picked up at sea.
"That drop is pretty significant when you consider that in 2016, Cuba's economy contracted for the first time in a generation," said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.
Cuba said its economy shrank 0.9 percent last year in tandem with the crisis in key ally and trading partner Venezuela.
Cubans who previously tried to reach the United States without a visa say it does not make sense now, given the risk of being deported. Hundreds have been sent home in the past few months, from both the United States and other countries they had traveled through in quest of the American Dream.
The number of migrants exploded in recent years as Cubans feared the end of the special U.S. asylum treatment, prompting surrounding countries to tighten migration rules for them.
Those who still want to leave, whether because of the difficulty of earning a living wage on the island or political repression, say they are left with few options.
Only a few countries, like Guyana and Russia, do not ask Cubans for visas, and visa requirements for the rest are difficult for most Cubans to fulfill.
Some Cubans who previously would have attempted to reach the United States illegally will likely instead apply for asylum, immigration lawyers say.
That is the case for actor and comedian Andres Serrano, who tried to leave by raft three times. He says he faces state persecution for his political satire, for which authorities branded him "antisocial" and "counterrevolutionary."
Serrano, 38, is perhaps best known for his parody in 2015 of the popular song "Bailando" by Enrique Iglesias. "Remando," or Rowing, about the experience of Cubans trying to escape by raft, went viral online.
The United States has historically taken in a large number of Cuban refugees. Yet Serrano is not hopeful - his brother's asylum application was rejected earlier this month.
Serrano, Juan and others say those who have been caught trying to leave face an even tougher time back home.
Getting work with the state, for example, becomes impossible, given that it holds a monopoly on broadcasting and theater.
"I feel imprisoned," said Serrano, who provides for his family doing construction work.
(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Christian Plumb and Dan Grebler)