HIALEAH, Fla. -This was supposed to be the year Luis Bazan celebrated New Year’s with his wife and young sons in the U.S.
Bazan left Cuba for Florida nearly two years ago on a hand-wrought wooden boat. On Nov. 24, his family and about 40 others, including a dozen young children, set out on the same journey aboard a speedy fishing boat.
The last he heard from his wife was when she talked to him using a borrowed cell phone shortly after they began the dangerous trip across the Florida Straits.
“My only drop of hope is that the boat landed somewhere in the Bahamas and that they haven’t been able to call,” Bazan said recently as he sat in his one-room Hialeah apartment, tracing his fingers over photos of his boys, 8-year-old Yasel and 2-year-old Yarlon.
More likely, Bazan’s wife and sons met the same fate as thousands of other Cubans migrants who have perished at sea trying to reach the U.S. since Cuban President Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
In the last two months alone, according to the Coast Guard, relatives have reported nearly 70 migrants aboard three boats have died or gone missing in the Florida Straits, including those on the boat with Bazan’s family. As recently as Saturday, the Coast Guard suspended a 48-hour search for a boat with at least three migrants aboard.
“In recent months and recent days, we’ve seen a very alarming loss of life,” said U.S. Coast Guard Spokesman Chris O’Neil.
In 2007, the U.S. stopped about 3,200 Cubans at sea, up from about 2,300 the year before. It was the largest number of interdictions since the 1994 rafter crisis in which 37,000 Cubans tried to reach Florida after Castro briefly opened the island’s ports. The numbers had fallen to as low as 391 in 1996, with 394 the following year.
O’Neil attributes the recent increase to a variety of factors, including months of mild weather, high-tech smuggling operations and concern among Cubans over the future of their country without the ailing Castro, who ceded power to his brother last year.
Under U.S. policy, Cubans who reach U.S. land are generally allowed to stay, while those stopped at sea are generally sent back, under the so-called “wet-foot, dry-foot policy.” Without Castro, Cubans could lose their preferential treatment if relations between the two countries improve.
Bazan wasn’t thinking about politics when he left his small village in Mantanzas in 2006.
“I came for everything, for freedom and to drag my family out of miserable poverty,” he said.
He found an apartment in this Miami suburb, got a job unloading packages at a cargo transport company, and sent packages home.
“I would make video tapes every month, playing and telling them stories so that they could see me. I left my little one when he was about six months, and he could pick me out of a photo album,” Bazan said.
Eventually he secured a spot for his family on a boat chartered by a recent fellow Cuban immigrant. Bazan and other relatives of people on that boat said they never paid for the trip, which would be a federal crime. The trip wasn’t expected to take more than a day in clear weather.
Bazan said he didn’t call the Coast Guard for nearly two weeks because he was sure his wife and sons had completed the crossing and were being processed by immigration authorities.
After he finally called, the Coast Guard searched the route the boat was supposed to take but found nothing. A week later, Bazan chartered a small plane for a fruitless aerial search.
O’Neil said it’s unlikely anyone on the boat is alive.
Coast Guard officials say they can’t prevent more drownings without more help from the Cuban-American community.
“We need the community to say ‘This is not acceptable anymore. It’s not acceptable to continue to pay people to subject our relatives, our loved ones and our friends to these dangerous conditions. It’s no longer acceptable to see this loss in life,'” O’Neil said.
Bazan, who was briefly taken to a psychiatric ward after authorities feared he was suicidal, says he is ready to face whatever comes but he couldn’t celebrate the New Year as he had hoped.
“How can I go and eat at a buffet until I know if my family exists or not?” he said. “How can I celebrate anything until I know what happened to them?”