In March of this year, nine Cuban refugees died at sea, as the Coast Guard rescued 18 other drifters on the Florida Strait, a stretch of sea which has earned a morbid nickname—the “Corridor of Death.” Each year, thousands of Cubans flee their island home, most seeking the safety of American soil.
After President Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced the restoration of relations in December of 2014, 23 years after the conclusion of the Cold War, the exodus of desperate souls picked up. Arrivals of Cuban émigrés increased 78%, according to the Pew Research Center, from 24,278 to 43,159 over 2014-2015.
The exponential growth in refugee arrivals has been attributed to the fear that restored U.S.-Cuban relations would end the wet-foot/dry-foot policy. For residents of the secluded island, the path to freedom appears to be eroding, forcing more into perilous waters which swallow an estimated 1 in 4, or 16,000 in total. Though the exodus is gaining speed, and the death toll with it, the American government must keep an eye firmly toward long-term planning and the impending end of the Castro Epoch.
For Cubans, the Florida Strait is akin to both the River Styx and a deep blue umbilical cord to a fuller humanity, swallowing up loved ones, but offering the only path to certain freedom. The 106 miles between Key West and Havana offer an enticing, potentially-fatal escape.
A Cuban émigré, Yenis Rojas, told The Telegraph, “now we all want to leave Cuba more than ever,” with the government clamping down after the great exhale of the Cuban people in late 2014. While spectators anticipate coming sociopolitical change, Cubans have a visceral yearning for the freedom offered on the other side of the Florida Strait—a freedom they fear is ephemeral.
The warming of Cuban-American relations is welcome, and will have a positive impact on the Cuban people and nation. However, until democracy comes to Cuba, or the American government (wrongly) decides to end to wet-foot/dry-foot, the number of refugees fleeing by sea will only rise.
While it may seem logical that a public announcement ending the wet-foot/dry-foot policy would dissuade Cubans from fleeing to America, it would also deal a great blow to the Cuban peoples’ perception of the United States as their unshakeable ally in seeking freedom.
Though the increase in departures increases deaths, sealing off the island would serve the Fidel regime well. While logic might dictate that sealing off the island would create a crucible ripe for revolution, the U.S. has not had success in building international democracy, especially via insurrection.
Instead, the U.S. must continue working with Central American governments to transport refugees to avoid crisis. While aiding refugees, President Obama and his successor must leverage the influence of the United States’ geopolitical authority to support the natural path of democratic expansion.
With the expiration date of the Castro brothers approaching, at ages 85 and 89, the U.S. must focus on a plan to ensure transition works in the favor of the Cuban people, and not collapse as with the death of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
Contrary to statements from Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and others, the embargo on Cuba has proven economic pressure to be ineffective in expanding to freedoms, sealing off the nation and its people in an effort to influence a small slice of the population. Purely economic sanctions, such as those currently placed on Venezuela, have little influence on the progress of democracy, only serving to harm all residents of a targeted nation.
Combining the influence of the United States, as well as the inevitability of regime change in the next 5 to 10 years, should prove to be the most effective method of encouraging democratic reform in Cuba. Though the American government must do all it can to ameliorate the current refugee crisis, long-term strategy is vitally important to the creation of sustainable democracy in Cuba.
Christopher Sacco is opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.