MIAMI, FL — U.S. Coast Guard officials say they are worried about a new spike in “desperate” Cubans heading for the United States on rickety, homemade boats, with some of those migrants willing to resist and confront the Coast Guard officers who intercept them.
“In the past year, we’ve had over 20 cases where there has been violence toward our boarding team members or other migrants on these vessels,” said Capt. Mark Fedor, the Chief of Response for the U.S. Coast Guard Seventh District.
In the last three months of 2015, according to Coast Guard statistics, 1,536 Cubans took to the sea, most of them picked up by the Coast Guard. This compares to 4,473 Cubans in all of fiscal 2015, which ended September 30.
In the first five days of January alone, the number had already climbed to 176, indicating a steady escalation in Cuban maritime migration at a time of year when winter weather typically keeps the numbers low.
Coast Guard officials say many of the Cubans they’ve intercepted have told them there are two reasons that more Cuban citizens are now setting sail.
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“The first being they don’t see any bright economic future for themselves in Cuba, even with the normalization process that’s going on,” said Capt. Fedor in Miami.
The second reason is a widespread fear on the island that soon the United States could end the special immigration privileges given to Cubans during the Cold War under the Cuban Adjustment Act.
According to that 1966 law, and later by the rules of the so-called “wet-foot dry-foot policy,” virtually any Cuban who sets foot on U.S. soil, with a “dry foot,” is allowed to stay in the country.
Most Cubans who are picked up at sea, with a “wet foot,” are repatriated.
Cuban government officials have long urged the U.S. to end these special immigration privileges, arguing they draw Cubans to the sea and often to their deaths.
So far, though, the U.S. has resisted changing the law, and is trying to tamp down rumors to the contrary in Cuba.
“The U.S. government has clearly stated that policy is not changing, and we want to make sure people understand that,” said Fedor, noting the rumors have caused “anxiety and desperation among Cuban migrants where they are being more hostile, they’re being more violent to our boarding team members.”
Another concern is that the migrant boats, which usually leave from the Havana or Matanzas areas in Cuba, heading for the Florida Keys, are unsafe and are often dangerously overloaded.
“This is a tragedy at sea waiting to happen,” said Coast Guard Lt. Commander Gabriel Somma. “These makeshift vessels, they’re not safe, no lighting, no navigation equipment, very rarely do they have any lifesaving equipment.”
And with alternate routes used by tens of thousands of Cubans to enter the United States through Ecuador, Central America and Mexico becoming more restricted now, the Coast Guard fears there will be an even bigger rise in immigrant boat traffic, which is usually controlled by smuggling groups.
“We continually in the last four or five years have seen this steady uptick (in Cuban migrant boats) and it doesn’t seem there’s any reason for a slowdown in the future,” said Somma.
Mark Potter is an NBC News correspondent based in Miami where he reports for NBC Nightly News With Lester Holt, TODAY, MSNBC and NBCNews.com. He joined NBC News as a staff correspondent in 2004.
During his more than 40-year journalism career, Potter has reported from all over the United States, South America, Central America and the Caribbean, including Haiti, Cuba and Mexico. He has also worked in NBC's London and Hong Kong Bureaus, and has reported from China, the South Pacific, the Philippines and Israel. Much of his career was spent with investigative units at both the national and regional levels, and he has reported on topics including politics, narcotics, immigrant smuggling, environmental issues, natural disasters, international conflicts and numerous high-profile court cases.
Among the stories he has covered are the Cuban Mariel boatlift, the Grenada invasion, the arrest and trial of Panama's General Manuel Noriega, the Mexican and Colombian drug wars, the Haitian immigration crisis, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Hezbollah-Israeli war, the 1980's Miami riots and cocaine crisis, the Theodore Bundy murder trial, the Oklahoma City and Atlanta Centennial Park bombing investigations, the regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the Everglades Valujet crash, scores of hurricanes, the Armero volcano disaster in Colombia, the Central American conflicts, the Elian Gonzalez legal battle, several Papal trips, the right-to-die case of Terri Schiavo, the Gianni Versace murder, the U.S. heroin epidemic, the Southwest border-security debate, the U.S.-Cuban political opening and the dramatic prison-tunnel escape of Mexican kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
For 15 years, prior to working at NBC News, Potter was a correspondent for ABC News, reporting for World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, Nightline and Good Morning America. He also worked for CNN, where among other duties he served as contributing correspondent for the Emmy-Award winning magazine show, CNN and Time.
Potter is the recipient of the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Award, a Robert F. Kennedy Award, an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, National Headliner Awards, the 2011 national Emmy Award for "Mexico: The War Next Door," a 2015 Emmy Award for "Hooked: America's Heroin Epidemic," numerous Emmy nominations, and six regional Emmy Awards. He also received a 2015 National Association of Black Journalists Salute to Excellence Award.
Potter has often appeared as a guest lecturer in journalism classes at the University of Miami, the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas. His work is also featured in "Square Grouper," a 2011 documentary film about South Florida marijuana smugglers, and in “Cocaine Cowboys Reloaded,” a 2014 documentary about drug-related violence in Miami and Colombia.
Potter was graduated from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and then worked for three local television stations in Evansville, Ind., and Miami before joining network news in 1983.