News & Politics

Ahead of Obama Trip, Nine Cuban Migrants Die at Sea Trying to Reach American Soil

Mexican Navy personnel help Cuban migrants after being rescued in Cozumel, Mexico, Saturday, March 19, 2016. According to a U.S Coast Guard news release, "18 reported Cuban migrants were picked up by the Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas cruise ship west of Marco Island, Florida. The 18 migrants were reportedly suffering from severe dehydration and claimed they left Cuba 22 days ago where nine of the migrants perished at sea during the journey." (Angel Villegas via AP)

Just ahead of the first family’s visit to Cuba, nine Cuban migrants died at sea trying to reach American soil. Eighteen others were rescued by a cruise ship Saturday after their 30-foot boat was found approximately 130 miles from the Florida coast.

The migrants were severely dehydrated when they were found Friday and said they had been at sea 22 days. The bodies of those who didn’t make it were placed overboard, said coast guard petty officer Mark Barney. The survivors were in bad condition.

“They could barely walk off the vessel itself,” Barney said. “They were weak and they were shaking.”

“The Coast Guard has observed a steady increase in illegal maritime migration attempts from Cuba to the southeastern U.S. since the US announcement of normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba in December 2014,” the Coast Guard said in a press release.

The rescue comes as President Obama travels to Cuba to meet with President Castro on Sunday as part of his efforts to normalize relations with the Communist country. Those efforts have triggered a new refugee crisis as thousands of Cubans flee the island out of fear that detente will lead to the end of automatic refugee status for Cubans who reach the U.S. land border. In January there were as many as 8,000 Cubans living in squalor in Costa Rica, where their attempts to reach the U.S. were stalled.

The Obama administration sought to justify the first family’s trip by saying it will “advance our progress and improve the lives of the Cubans.” But according to Investor’s Business Daily, Obama originally said he would only visit Cuba on the condition that the Castroites improve the rights of Cuba’s citizens. That hasn’t happened.

Unfortunately, there have been nothing but problems for Cuban citizens since Obama announced the normalization of ties in late 2014. In addition to a mad scramble to leave the island before it’s too late, dissident arrests have risen fivefold. According to the Los Angeles Times, Cuban authorities “are ordering dissidents invited to meet with the American leader to stay home instead.”

Elizardo Sanchez, a Cuban anti-government activist who chronicles political detentions month-to-month, said he and most of those invited planned to defy the government order.