The recent seizure of three high-speed boats in Cuban waters and the slayings of three would-be defectors from Fidel Castro's regime has focused attention on what U.S. authorities admit is a long-overlooked and potentially lucrative trade--smuggling refugees into Florida.
Smugglers in twin-engine racing vessels capable of outrunning Cuban patrols can make up to $10,000 for one 180-mile round trip between Key West and Cuba's north coast, according to U.S. Coast Guard officials.
"There is evidence smuggling is going on," said Petty Officer Joe Dye, a Coast Guard spokesman in Miami. "How big or how organized, I have no idea. We have cases of people who show up and claim to have been at sea for days but the scenario doesn't match their story. They don't look like they've been at sea."
With Cuba in the throes of an ever-worsening economic crisis, the number of refugees fleeing the island, often in crude inner-tube rafts or small boats, has rarely been greater. So far this year, 1,131 Cubans have been picked up at sea and brought to South Florida. Sixty-six persons arrived last weekend alone aboard vessels that included three inner tubes lashed together and a rowboat.
The record for any year since the 1980 Mariel boat lift is 2,557, set in 1992.
Both U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Border Patrol officials acknowledge at least five other known cases this year where U.S. residents have attempted to smuggle people out of Cuba, usually South Floridians hoping to be reunited with relatives. Cuban officials say there have been 17 such incidents.
In the most dramatic of three separate incidents in four days, Cuban guards in the seaside town of Cojimar opened fire on one boat late Thursday, killing three Cubans trying to flee the island. A fourth man, Key West resident Ricky Robert Hoddinott, 33, was wounded and captured.
The fate of a fifth man involved, former Cuban political prisoner Hugo Portilla, 45, who escaped to Florida on a raft only 10 months ago, is uncertain. Reportedly obsessed with getting his wife and ailing 4-year-old daughter off the island, Portilla apparently took the 30-foot speedboat, the Midnight Express, from his brother's Miami home and hired Hoddinott to captain the vessel.
The Cuban government said that Portilla escaped and is at large in Cuba.
His family in Miami said that he was seen in Cuban custody.
Said Hoddinott's father, Robert: "It's your worst nightmare."
In Washington, an Administration official said Tuesday that the United States has protested the shooting. "Cuban border guards fired at the boat despite the fact that it posed no danger," said the official, who declined to be identified. "We called that an excessive use of force. We also rejected Cuban claims that U.S. immigration policy is the reason that incidents like this occur."
A second boat and its four occupants were seized early Friday north of Havana and three more Cuban exiles were arrested Sunday after their boat ran aground near Santa Cruz del Norte, 25 miles east of Havana.
Cuban authorities said that Hoddinott admitted he would have received "a lot of money for every Cuban" he brought into the United States.
Robert Hoddinott said he has been unable to contact his son directly but added that a State Department official assured him Tuesday that his son is being treated in a Cuban hospital for a fractured right foot and bullet fragments in the left leg.
"I didn't have the slightest idea he was going," said Hoddinott, who manages a hotel lounge in Key West. "He was approached by a man who wanted to get his family out."
That man was apparently Portilla, whose brother, Leandro, and mother, Clara, now fear for his safety. "He only wanted to save his family from a country in ruins," Leandro Portilla told the Miami Herald.
Hoddinott said that his son, a construction worker, had financial problems "and I'm sure he did it for some money." But, according to what the State Department told him, "it wasn't close" to $10,000, Hoddinott said.
The attempted escape from Cojimar, a fishing village, reportedly led to a mini-riot when Cuban guards fired at the fleeing speedboat. Cuban authorities said that the occupants of the Midnight Express fired back.
But other witnesses told the Spanish news agency EFE that those in the boat were not armed and that Cojimar residents at one point began to throw rocks at Cuban police. Special troops were called in to disperse the crowd, according to the EFE.
Six hours later Cuban patrol boats captured a 36-foot Scorpion speedboat 10 miles away. Aboard were four men identified as Cubans who live in Miami.
The third vessel seized, the Oceanic, a 31-foot boat with two 225-horsepower outboard engines, was taken into custody Monday, along with three men identified by Cuban authorities as Florida-based Cuban exiles.
Dye said that Cuban officials notified the Coast Guard in Miami by telex of all three incidents, which in itself is unusual. "Usually we find out about these things when a relative calls and says that someone on a fishing trip is overdue and then we ask Cuba and they say, 'Yes, we have the boat,' " said Dye. "In these cases, they wanted us to know."
Often, Dye added, the fishing trips are merely a cover for smuggling attempts, some of which are successful. "Families are not willing to tell us they went down there," he said, since entering Cuban waters violates both U.S. and Cuban law.
When the Coast Guard learns of violations, however, the information is passed on to the State Department. Transporting aliens into the United States is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $10,000.
But prosecutions are rare, in part because of what one U.S. Border Patrol spokesman recently called "the political climate of the Cubans in South Florida."
Why the Cubans announced the latest captures is the subject of much speculation in Miami. "They are very desperate. The situation is out of control," said Arturo Cobo, president of the Transit Home for Rafters in Key West, voicing one of the more popular explanations in Cuban-American circles. "We expect Castro's collapse at any minute."
Dye of the Coast Guard said that he has no opinion on the longevity of Castro's rule. But he added: "Despite what people may think about conditions in Cuba, they have shown they can stop this--with gunfire. We advise people not to go."
The number of Cubans wanting to leave the Caribbean island has grown as worsening shortages of fuel, food, medicines and consumer goods have increasingly squeezed its population of nearly 11 million people. The shortages, triggered by the collapse of Cuba's past trade ties with the now defunct Soviet bloc, have been exacerbated by a continuing U.S. trade embargo.