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Cuban migrants arriving on boats with parts sold on Facebook

KEY WEST, FLORIDA – JANUARY 06: A boat that was left along the shoreline after it was used recently to transport Cuban migrants from the island nation to America on January 06, 2023 in Key West, Florida. An increasing number of migrants from Cuba and Haiti have been taking to the seas to reach the United States. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

(NewsNation) — After learning they would be turned away at U.S. land borders, Cuban citizens are arriving on Florida’s shores in boats fashioned from parts they bought on Facebook, which some Cubans say is their most viable and cost-effective option.

The Florida coast has become a popular destination for Cuban migrants. Trips through the Florida Strait especially picked up after President Joe Biden’s January announcement that Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans who cross into the U.S. via land through Mexico without authorization would be denied entry.

Traveling by water is nothing new to Cuban migrants seeking a fresh start in the U.S. tending to be more affordable than the arrangements needed to cross by land. But the voyage can be risky.

“Many boats that they build do not meet the basic standards to have a good performance at sea,” said 33-year-old Walter Peña, who lives in Havana, Cuba.

Although internet access in Cuba is relatively new, it’s rapidly expanding, allowing platforms such as Facebook to become popular marketplaces for migrants as prepare for the often-dangerous journey.

Peña has sold engines, lights and steering systems in “balseros Cubanos” Facebook groups, Spanish for “Cuban rafters.”

In those groups, Cuban residents seek and sell parts for either their personal boats or those used to “leave the country illegally,” Peña said.

“It is better to sell online; the publication can be seen by more people and thus sell it faster,” Peña said.

Some of the posts in Balseros Cubanos groups are straightforward — asking for a specific part or an exact number of handymen or women. Some are written in euphemisms, advertising “fishing trips” in the near future.

The epoxy and mechanical parts exchanged on Facebook eventually make their way through a dangerous 100-mile journey to Florida’s southern shores.

It’s not uncommon to see follow-up posts — photos of smiling boat passengers having arrived safely on shore. Other posts plead for help in contacting a family member who set out for Florida but hasn’t communicated since.

Meta — the group that owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — said several groups have been disabled after an internal investigation found they violated policies against human exploitation, a company spokesperson told NewsNation in an emailed statement.

The tech company updated its human smuggling policy in December to limit exploitation while still allowing asylum seekers to access information to help them make informed choices, the email read.

“…Our policy does allow people to discuss migration, especially in the context of escaping conflict, oppression or otherwise unsafe conditions, their right to seek asylum and their desire to escape these dire situations,” the spokesperson said.

Peña knows the situation in Cuba is dire, but stayed behind to care for his 78-year-old mother. She died late last year after a struggle with Alzheimer’s.

It was Peña’s “duty as a good son,” but he feels the urge to flee.

“Hunger and misery grows bigger every day,” Peña said. “There is no freedom of expression. There is no future in this country.”

Cubans began migrating to the U.S. in larger numbers decades ago — at times favoring either land or sea — following Fidel Castro’s revolution.

In 1966, Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act, allowing Cubans to become what is known as lawful permanent residents after they had been in the U.S. for at least a year.

But those who enter the U.S. without proper authorization aren’t eligible for the program, said Jorge Duany, director of Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute.

“I’m afraid actually many Cubans are going to be left without any way to legalize themselves,” Duany said.

In the face of “economically incompetent” leadership and “crumbling infrastructure,” the Cuban regime is facing its most difficult crisis in more than 60 years, said Sebastián Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.  

“The population is now desperate, but they have lost all confidence in the ability or the intent of the regime to fix things,” Arcos said. “So the only way is out and the numbers of Cubans that have left the island in the last two years are completely unprecedented.”

Nationally, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 220,908 encounters with Cuban migrants last year.

Federal, state and local law officials reported more than 8,000 migrants in waters off the coast of Florida since August 2022 alone, according to a news release from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Office.

The exact number of Cubans who have successfully made it to Florida by sea is unclear, but Arcos suspects the trips will lose their appeal soon.

“I think it’s going to end fairly quickly once Cubans on the island realize that arriving by boat to south Florida is no different than arriving on the Mexican border,” Arcos said.

For many Cubans, however, the chance to escape outweighs the risk of a dangerous voyage or being sent back, Peña said.

 “Here there is only hunger and misery…” he said.


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