Cuba detains more than 800 Haitian migrants on the way to the Florida Keys

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A cargo ship packed with more than 800 Haitian migrants ran aground in Cuban waters Tuesday, stopping before it could reach its intended destination — the Florida Keys.

If the boat had arrived anywhere near the South Florida mainland, it would have been by far the largest migrant landing by people from Haiti to date. The number of people on board the freighter exceeds the 356 Haitians who arrived on a similar boat in March just yards from the beach of the ultra-wealthy enclave of Ocean Reef Club in north Key Largo — and the size of that group stunned U.S. immigration officials.

The communist newspaper Granma reported there were 842 people, including toddlers and babies, on board.

The boat’s grounding on the coast of the province of Villa Clara was first reported by Cuban state media and independently confirmed by the Miami Herald with three sources. The number of migrants onboard and the use of a cargo vessel, not a sailboat, similar to the freighter that ran aground on March 6 in north Key Largo reflects the changing tactics of Haitian smugglers who are increasingly getting stopped at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Since the beginning of October, the U.S. Coast Guard has stopped more than 5,000 people from Haiti at sea trying to reach the United States. More than 1,400 have made it to U.S. soil between the Florida Keys and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, where earlier this month, 36 Haitian migrants were rescued and 11 were found dead after a boat capsized in waters northwest of the island.

At the same time, the Coast Guard and Border Patrol are also busy dealing with the largest Cuban maritime migration surge to affect South Florida in more than six years, with more than 1,952 people apprehended along the Florida Straits in the past eight months. From Oct. 1, 2019, to Sept. 30, 2020, only 49 Cubans were intercepted at sea.

On Wednesday, the Border Patrol detained more than 30 Cuban migrants in three separate landings in the Florida Keys, said Adam Hoffner, division chief of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Miami operations.

One source said the overloaded Haitian cargo boat had been tracked by the U.S. Coast Guard since it left Île de la Tortue, the rocky mountainous offshoot island off the northwest coast of Haiti. It had already motored through Cuban waters earlier in the week and was heading to the Florida Keys. But the vessel began taking on water and was forced to return to Cuba.

Miami Herald reporters first spotted the boat off the coast of Port-de-Paix in northwest Haiti in late March. At the time, it was anchored.

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The Coast Guard issued a statement Wednesday in response to questions from the Herald about the vessel. The agency said crews first encountered the boat on Saturday, May 21, along the Windward Passage that separates the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic.

“The vessel failed to stop, ignored all communication attempts by Coast Guard crews and continued traveling toward Cuba and the United States,” the statement reads.

Petty Officer Nicole Groll, a Coast Guard spokeswoman, said crews had to call off the pursuit because the migrant boat entered Cuban waters.

“We cannot enter Cuban territorial waters without permission,” Groll told the Miami Herald.

The Coast Guard and other agencies increased patrols in the area “to track this vessel and prevent a tragedy at sea due to the vessel’s severely overloaded condition,” the agency said.

The Cuban government confirmed that the boat was headed to the U.S. and said that in compliance with international standards, Cuban authorities immediately proceeded to provide the Haitians with medical care and humanitarian aid.

The Haitians are temporarily being housed in a camp in Sierra Morena in Corralillo. Cuban authorities are in contact with the government of Haiti “to ensure the safe and voluntary return of these people to their country, in accordance with the international agreements on migration to which Cuba is a signatory,” the government said in its state media.

Haiti is experiencing the largest exodus of its citizens since 2004 due to ever-increasing gang violence, kidnappings, poverty and political instability, which have intensified since last July’s assassination of its president, Jovenel Moïse. Haitians are making their way from all over the country to travel on rickety boats, which are being launched at an average of four a month from the country’s northwest shores, according to the Coast Guard. On Thursday the Haitian Coast Guard and Haiti’s national port authority seized an overloaded smuggling vessel after it rammed into a cutter about 35 miles northwest of Môle Saint-Nicolas, a town on the northwestern coast of Haiti.

On Tuesday, the Coast Guard stopped an overloaded sailboat with 153 people from Haiti on board about 45 miles southeast of Islamorada in the Keys.

Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald Latin American policy staff writer Nora Gámez Torres contributed to this report.

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