It was 1:45 a.m. as a group of Cuban men and women sprinted across a beachfront road near Havana, carrying a homemade boat made of steel rods, wood and foam. They moved quietly to avoid detection by the Cuban authorities.
At the shoreline, they quickly loaded the small boat with meager supplies and put the oars in place. Then four of the men said their goodbyes and shoved off into the surf on this boat with no engine, hoping to eventually reach the Florida Keys — the closest point of which was 90 miles away across a dangerous ocean.
All of the men claimed to be political dissidents desperate to leave Cuba, with one noting this was his ninth attempt. Explaining why he would take such a tremendous risk, he said, "It's better to try and [risk getting] eaten by sharks than not to and get eaten by communism."
Although they didn't know it at the time, dozens of other Cubans were thought to have died at sea shortly before these men set sail, although it would be weeks before their story became public.
Coast Guard swarmed by migrants, smugglers
U.S. Coast Guard officials said they've seen a steady rise in the number of Cubans taking to the sea and heading to Florida. Increasingly, many are taking a more circuitous route to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, where they then travel over land to the southwest U.S. border.
This year, the Coast Guard reported that of the 7,422 Cubans known to have set sail for Florida, 2,868 were interdicted at sea, and more than 4,500 made it past the Coast Guard cutters in the Florida Straits and arrived on U.S. soil. Under the so-called wet-foot/dry-foot policy, which offers special immigration privileges to Cubans, most received political asylum and were allowed to stay in the country — even if they were smuggled in.
Since Oct. 1, 2007, 1,190 Cubans are known to have left for Florida in boats, compared to 791 for the same period the year before. While 481 of those Cuban migrants were intercepted at sea, the other 709 made it to U.S. shores.
Coast Guard officials blamed the large percentage of successful landings on the increased activities of highly paid migrant smugglers, who use powerful speedboats to pick up Cubans on the island and bring them to South Florida.
Most of the smugglers, officials said, are financed by Cuban-American families eager to reunite with relatives. The going rate to carry a passenger to the U.S. by this often over-crowded and extremely dangerous method ranges from $8,000 to $12,000.
"One of the things that seems to get overlooked in the discussion is the responsibility of people who continue to support and hire migrant smugglers from the U.S.," said Lt. Commander Chris O'Neil of the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami. "Until people in the United States stop engaging in this criminal activity, we're going to see it continue. We're going to continue to see lives in peril, we're going to continue to see lives lost, and we're going to see Coast Guardsmen in harm's way."
An entire Cuban city suffers losses
In the small Cuban town of Perico, in the Matanzas province east of Havana, residents gathered tearfully to tell an NBC News team of the many residents there who they feared may have perished recently on a failed smuggling attempt to Florida.
According to a number of relatives in both Perico and South Florida, a group of about 35 to 40 Cubans — men, women and as many as a dozen children — gathered at a desolate beach north of Marti, Cuba, where they boarded a black, 32-foot Wellcraft speedboat with twin engines which had arrived from Miami. The passengers expected to then take a surreptitious voyage north across the Florida Straits.
The trip reportedly began in the early morning hours of Nov. 24, but the boat and passengers never arrived in Florida and were not seen back in Cuba. Residents said they were assured by Cuban authorities that they never seized the boat and knew nothing of its whereabouts, despite search efforts.
Thirteen days after the trip began, several relatives contacted the U.S. Coast Guard office in Miami to report the boat and the passengers missing. Officials immediately sent out planes and boats for a search, but found nothing. Puzzled by why the relatives waited so long to file a report, some officials speculated they may have been pressured by the smuggling organizers to initially remain silent.
In Perico, a town of about 31,000 residents, tragic stories of loss were told repeatedly, and the entire village seemed to be reeling from the disappearance of so many neighbors and family members.
Aranelis Cabrera still had not told her aging parents that her only brother and sister-in-law were among the missing. "I hope they show up somewhere," she said, but hope was fading.
Maria Galban was awaiting word about an entire family — her brother, his wife, and their 19-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter. "Of course, everyone thinks the worse," she said. Speaking of her brother, she added, "It's been a long time, and he hasn't appeared."
Maria Mirna Gutierrez feared the loss of her 42-year-old son. "My heart is breaking," she cried. "I never thought that a son of mine would throw himself into the sea, and lose such a precious life. I want to survive this, but I'm afraid I won't."
A former U.S. diplomat speaks out
Vicky Huddleston, Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1999 to 2002, argued that the best way to lower the number of Cubans risking their lives at sea was to change U.S. policies toward Cuba and to re-open migration talks with officials on the island.
Her solution involved three specific steps: end the special immigration privileges for Cubans setting foot on U.S. soil; ease the restrictions on Cuban-Americans wanting to travel to Cuba to visit relatives; and allow exiles in the United States to send more money to family members left behind in Cuba. Those steps, she argued, would reduce the pressure for Cubans to take such drastic measures at sea to reunify with their families and to assure the economic well-being of loved ones still in Cuba.
"What really has to happen here is we have to change the wet-foot/dry-foot policy," she said, insisting that removing the lure of almost certain acceptance for any Cuban arriving in the U.S. would go a long way toward removing the incentive for them to make the dangerous voyage. "We avoid the tragic loss of life," she said. "And secondly, we stop this lucrative business of smuggling."
The Bush administration, though, has long opposed any softening of its stance against Cuba, blaming the failed economic, social and political measures of the dictatorial government there.
Amid reports of Cuban President Fidel Castro being in poor health and his future as leader of the country in serious question, administration officials have said they don't want to ease the pressure on Cuba to begin a transition toward democracy and social change.
More losses feared
Earlier this month, law enforcement officials found a group of 22 Cuban migrants stranded in the mangroves of Tavernier Key in Florida. It was believed smugglers had dropped them off there after picking them up in Cuba. Two of the migrants were severely dehydrated, and one of them was hospitalized for treatment. With similar scenarios becoming more commonplace, Coast Guard officials fear even more lives will be lost.
"There are a number of things that can go wrong," said Coast Guard Lt. Commander Chris O'Neil. "Every time someone gets into a migrant smuggling boat, every time someone gets into a rustic boat or a raft, they are putting their lives in danger, and the are putting the lives of those charged with protecting them in danger. It's an unsafe environment."