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Dariela Aquique: I remember my years as a high school student, especially that teacher who would interrupt the reading of works and who with surprising histrionics spoke of the real possibilities of knowing more about the truth of a country through its writers than through historical chronicles. From there came my passion for writing and literature. I had excellent teachers (sure, those were not the days of the Fast-track Teachers) and extemporization and the non-mastery of subjects was not tolerated. With humble pretenses, I want to contribute to revealing the truth about my country, where reality always overcomes fiction, but where a novel style shrouds its existence.

More on Cuban Emigration

November 13, 2013 | Print Print |

Lampedusa and the Strait of Florida

Dariela Aquique

African immigrants trying to reach Lampedusa.

HAVANA TIMES — In the post titled How Cubans Emigrate, I promised readers I would continue to discuss the migratory issue. Here, I will take an incident that made headlines around the world less than two months ago as my point of departure. I am referring to two accidents that caused many deaths near the Italian coastline.

The first and most tragic of the two incidents took place in Lampedusa, the largest of the Pelagie Islands, on the Mediterranean Sea.

The deaths of 354 people from Libya prompted international uproar, including a statement by the Vatican, where Pope Francisco expressed “shame over the savage system that forces people to leave behind their homes in search of a better life.”

A similar tragedy took place eight days later in the Sicilian canal, where, according to several analysts, there have been around 6,200 deaths over the last ten years. Around 250 people were on board the ship that suffered an accident before reaching the coast. Only 34 bodies were recovered. The remainder of the passengers were reported missing.

According to the European Agency for the Management of External Borders (Frontex), in the first half of 2013 alone, a total of 34,522 immigrants who entered EU countries illegally were registered.

After looking at this data, I thought of how much the exodus of Africans towards Europe resembles that of Cubans towards the United States.

The national news segment titled Cuba dice (“Cuba Says”) recently tackled the issue of immigration and, as expected, touched on the matter of illegal population movements.

Cuban immigrants trying to reach Florida.

An interesting bit of information was mentioned: that, to date, as a result of the migratory agreements between Cuba and the United States, several vessels had been intercepted in the high seas and that over 1,000 Cubans had been repatriated. They said “over one thousand”, but didn’t give the actual figure.

The segment criticized the US Interests Section in Cuba and the very few travel visas given Cubans every year and went on to state that the Cuban Adjustment Act is the reason many Cubans opt to leave the country illegally. In my opinion, the piece did not thoroughly explore the issue of human trafficking.

Currently, this is a serious issue that affects Cubans almost every day. The trafficking of persons is a profitable business that many unscrupulous individuals are involved in.

I’ve heard first-hand accounts from people who have been captured by the US coast guard, after being detained a few kilometers from the Florida Keys. The reason they were captured is that the vessels broke down and were unable to reach the coast.

Libyans involved in the illegal transportation of people to Europe cram immense numbers of people in small vessels that are unfit for navigation. These often break down during the voyage.

Cubans who do this here make vessels in mangroves and derelict beaches, using recycled or homemade parts.

According to the UN Refugees Agency, the passengers headed for Lampedusa in the first of the two vessels to leave from Libya had paid 1,600 euros each to a criminal organization involved in human trafficking.

Maria Jesus Vega, the spokeswoman for the Spanish headquarters of the organization, said that “considering that whole families were on board that ship, one can surmise that these people had sold everything they owned to go on this journey.”

The sums people pay to leave Cuba illegally oscillate between 1,000 and 1,500 euros. Bearing in mind the extremely low incomes of Cubans, one can well surmise that, as Mrs. Vega said in connection to Libyan immigrants, people here have to sell everything they own for a ticket on one of those “vessels.”

I don’t know the exact number of Africans who have died near Lampedusa. I am also unaware of the number of Cubans who have died in the vicinity of Florida’s coast since the rafter exoduses began in the 1990s.

In both cases it is extremely sad to see people risk everything in search of a (sometimes illusory) better life. Many no doubt continue and will continue to run such risks.

To be continued…


What's your opinion?

  • Griffin

    According to the current best estimates, some 77,000 Cubans have drowned in the sea while attempting to escape the island prison. Of those who have drowned since 1990, the death toll must inclide the 41 people who were deliberately drowned in the “13 de Marzo” Tugboat Massacre of 1994.

    The exodus of Cubans continues, and last year some 39,000 Cubans emigrated, some 20,000 legally and the rest without official permission.