More Cubans fear end of free entry to US, risk it all

MIAMI - For plenty of Cubans, closer ties with the United States hold the promise of a better future on their communist-run island.

But for 21-year-old Jordi Escalante Carrillo the clock is fast running down on his best chance to flee Cuba for an easy introduction to life the United States.

Cubans fear that if, as now appears likely, Washington and Cuba normalize diplomatic ties, migrants who make it ashore in the United States will no longer be welcomed as refugees.

So he chose to risk his life on an undocumented journey across a shark-infested sea to the US state of Florida.

He is part of a recent wave of hundreds of Cuban rafters to wash up on US shores in the weeks since Washington and Havana announced their imminent rapprochement.

"That's all people are talking about - that they aren't going to let more people in once Cuba and the United States have relations," the young man told AFP in Miami.

Escalante set off with seven other people in a rickety raft to traverse the Florida Straits, just over 150 kilometers (a bit over 90 miles) wide, to settle in America.

The group arrived unscathed on Monday in Miami, home to just more than half the two million strong Cuban-American community.

Last call for easy entry

Cuba's political situation has barely changed in over 50 years; but its economy in recent years has gone from grim to worse.

Most Cubans make under US$20 (S$26.68) a month and struggle to put food on the table. Oxen still plow many fields, and Cuba - with 11 million people - relies on imports for most of its food and energy needs.

Cuban President Raul Castro, 83, has allowed more workers to become self-employed to trim state payrolls.

But his government is determined not to see its system unravel completely, and it has not dropped or overhauled a centrally planned economy that is simply dysfunctional.

Recent economic changes - such as allowing sales of homes and cars - have been meaningful more in theory than practice. And Cuba remains ineligible for lending from most institutions.

So - as US-Cuban migration talks loom this month - taking a last desperate chance, whether fleeing on rafts made up of tires or with human traffickers, has increased appeal for those ready to risk it all.

"People want to leave there to come here," Escalante told AFP. "That's why we did what we did."

Wet foot, dry foot

For decades, Cubans have been the sole beneficiaries of US privileges that apply to them and them only, a warm embrace they owe to Cuban-American lawmakers' Cold War-era heft.

Many argued that this was appropriate since Cubans have fled communist rule. But the United States never gave such benefits to every Vietnamese person - or over a billion Chinese.

Following a quick health clearance, every Cuban who reaches US shores is granted almost immediate US temporary residency, including the right to work, leading to US citizenship if desired.

Cuba is the only country in the world whose nationals are granted this blanket privilege.

They also are guaranteed limited healthcare coverage, which not all Americans are entitled to.

But Cubans who are picked up at sea are repatriated. The policy is nicknamed "wet foot/dry foot." US authorities have insisted that plans to normalize relations with Havana will not affect the policy nor the Cuban Adjustment Act, which only the US Congress can change.

Washington, in fact, is keen to prevent any mass exodus, particularly since Cuba is in a period of extreme economic stress.

'People are jumping in'

But tell that to millions of Cubans for whom "word on the street" is a rare source of news other than state media.

"You hear a lot of rumours," said Alexander Hernandez Lora, 37, who fears that soon there will be no US special treatment for Cubans.

The native of Cuba's second largest city Santiago, arrived in Florida last week crammed into a small boat with 32 other people.

Their passage was anything but smooth.

They set out thinking they were on the right course but lost their way and circled around the lower Gulf of Mexico for four days before they finally hit the Florida coast.

They had run out of food, and had almost no water left when they made it, alive, if barely.

"People are just throwing themselves in because they are afraid all this is going to end, and that they won't be able to move over here any more," said migrant Luis Roberto Vaca Soto, 40.

Before he fled his homeland, Vaca Soto said he heard many say: "Hey, if you are going to head over there, get out already. Because if Obama and Fidel start making deals and that law ends, you lose." In December, the US Coast Guard plucked 507 Cuban men, women and children trying to reach Florida from rickety often homemade boats - more than double the number from a year earlier, More significantly, 421 arrived or were picked up just since the US-Cuban rapprochement deal was unveiled December 17, US Coast Guard spokeswoman Marilyn Fajardo said.

For Escalante, losing family and friends to try to build a new life in the United States seems to have been worth the risk so far.

"I'm not sure how things will go, but this is what I wanted. Now it is all up to me, and what I do," he said tearfully, adding that he hopes he can earn enough money to send some home.