HAVANA – During a recent trip to Cuba to follow-up on our earlier reporting on the lucrative but very dangerous business of smuggling Cubans to the United States, we came face to face with some of the human tragedies behind this illicit trade.
Taking to the seas to leave Cuba and to find a new life in the United States is a desperate and horribly risky endeavor. It speaks volumes about the difficult life on the island -- and about the lure of virtually guaranteed entry in the U.S. where the Cuban Adjustment Act (and its so-called "wet foot/dry foot" policy) give unique privileges to Cuban immigrants who set foot on American soil.
Over and over again we talked with young and middle-aged Cubans in Havana who said they feel no hope here for them or their children. They spoke openly of economic deprivation, of shortages, of struggling to survive, and of seeing the treacherous ocean as their only way out.
|VIDEO: NBC's Mark Potter reports from a Cuban Border Guard patrol boat trying to stop smugglers from sneaking Cubans illegally into the U.S.|
One man, facing an interminable wait for a U.S. visa and unable to afford the $10,000 fee charged by smugglers coming on fast boats from South Florida, said he was all but ready to take his chances on a rickety homemade boat.
It seemed a faint boast, but the next night, under cover of darkness, he proved he was serious by showing us the metal frame of a boat he and other men were quietly building in a garage.
Journeys gone awry
Another man told us of a smuggling scheme that went awry. After arriving at a desolate island beach with the help of Cuban arrangers, he boarded a boat bound for Mexico, hoping to eventually cross the U.S. border in Texas. (Tightened security by the U.S. Coastguard around Florida has made this is an increasingly common route for Cubans.) The boat, however, broke down in bad weather. After two terrifying days adrift in rough seas, the vessel floated back to western Cuba and crashed on the rocks, killing two of his friends.
Our saddest encounter was with Maria Villalba, a Cuban mother who last year lost her only son, her daughter-in-law and a nephew aboard an ill-fated boat trip to Honduras, from where they had hoped to cross into Mexico and then head north to the United States. Visibly broken and crying through much of our interview, she said she'd been told the three were separated from the others on the boat by huge waves and had disappeared.
The hardest part was to hear her clinging to the faint hope that, because the bodies had not been found, her son and the others might still be alive somewhere, perhaps suffering from amnesia. It was absolutely heartbreaking.
Cuban officials argue the flow of Cuban migrants to the United States is the result of the U.S. economic embargo, U.S. immigration law and a lack of resolve to stop the Miami-based smugglers. American officials argue the thousands of Cubans taking to the sea are symptomatic of the economic, social and political failures of the Castro government.
Far from the Cuban Foreign Ministry, the U.S. State Department and the decades-old political arguments, though, are the people on the ground and in the boats making desperate choices, and suffering immeasurable pain. That's what this trip showed us.
See more of Mark Potter's report about the sad reality of human smuggling from Cuba's shores to the United States on NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams Wednesday evening.