HAVANA — The number of Cubans heading to the United States has soared since the island lifted travel restrictions last year, and instead of making the risky journey by raft across the Florida Straits, most are now passing through Mexico or flying straight to the U.S.
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol figures show that more than 22,000 Cubans arrived at the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada in the fiscal year that ended last month. That was nearly double the number in 2012, the year before restrictions were lifted.
The changes in Cuban law eliminate a costly exit visa and make it easier for Cubans to both leave and return to the island legally. Reform of property laws now allows Cubans to sell homes and vehicles, helping would-be emigrants pull together the cash needed to buy airline tickets. With greater access to cash and legal travel documents, the historic pattern of Cuban migration is shifting from daring dangerous voyages at sea to making the journey by air and then land.
The Cuban government is struggling to bolster a dysfunctional centrally planned economy after decades of inefficiency and underinvestment. Recent changes intended to encourage entrepreneurism have borne little fruit and many people are seeking opportunities elsewhere.
While the number of Cubans trying to reach the United States by sea also grew to nearly 4,000 people this past year, the biggest jump by far came from people entering the U.S. by land. And the Cubans flying to Latin America or straight to the United States generally belong to the more prosperous and well-connected strata of society, accelerating the drain of the island's highly educated.
U.S. officials say that before the recent surge, more than 20,000 Cubans formally migrated to the U.S. every year using visas issued by the U.S. government, while several thousand more entered on tourist visas and stayed. Adding in migrants who entered informally, U.S. officials believe more than 50,000 Cubans were moving to the U.S. every year, leaving behind their homeland of 11 million people.
Many Cubans are using an opportunity offered by Spain in 2008 when it allowed descendants of those exiled during the Spanish Civil War to reclaim Spanish citizenship. A Spanish passport allows visa-free travel to the U.S., Europe and Latin America.
The number of Cubans holding a Spanish passport tripled between 2009 and 2011, when it hit 108,000. Many of those Cubans fly to Mexico or the U.S. on their Spanish passports, then present their Cuban passports to U.S. officials.
Thousands of other travelers make their first stop in Ecuador, which dropped a visa requirement for all tourists in 2008. The number of Cubans heading to Ecuador hit 18,078 a year by 2012, the latest year for which statistics are available. From there, many hopscotch north by plane, train, boat or bus through Colombia, Central America and Mexico.
The government last year extended the length of time Cubans can be gone without losing residency rights from one year to two. That means migrants now can obtain U.S. residency and still return to Cuba for extended periods, receive government benefits and even invest money earned in the U.S.
Particularly notable is the departure of young and educated people. In the capital, Havana, it seems most every 20- or 30-something has a plan to go sooner rather than later, mostly to the United States. Nearly everyone has a close friend or relative who already has left for the U.S. in the last few years.
Dozens of Cuban migrants show up every week at the Church World Service office in Miami seeking help. Those without relatives in the U.S. are resettled in other parts of the country, where they are connected with jobs, housing and English classes.
Raimel Rosel, 31, said he left his job at a Havana center for pig genetics and breeding when state security agents began questioning him about extra income he earned from private consulting. He flew to Ecuador in August and then traveled north for 30 days to the Mexican border.
"It was really tense," he said, describing the trip as "utterly exhausting."
Another man at the church office said "going by boat is madness."
He and his wife and daughter all had Spanish passports, he said. After selling their home in Matanzas province, outside the capital, for $8,000, they flew to Mexico City and then Tijuana, where they crossed into the U.S. He declined to provide his name in order to protect relatives in Cuba from repercussions.
Cubans arriving at a U.S. border or airport automatically receive permission to stay in the United States under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows them to apply for permanent residency after a year, almost always successfully.
While the number of Florida-bound rafters jumped this year, the 2014 figure is generally in line with the average for the last decade. The U.S. Coast Guard says it stopped 2,059 Cuban rafters on the high seas as of Sept. 22, a few hundred more than the average of 1,750 interdicted each year since 2005. Roughly 2,000 more rafters made it to dry land this year. The figure of those stopped was higher from 2005 to 2008, dipped dramatically for three years, then starting climbing again in 2012. Statistics for all Coast Guard contacts with Cuban rafters were not available for years earlier than 2010.
Good weather may have prompted more rafters to attempt the journey this year, said Cmdr. Timothy Cronin, deputy chief of law enforcement for the U.S. Coast Guard district responsible for most interactions with Cuban rafters.
"There haven't been any major storms that have come through the area, no hurricanes," he said. "We've been blessed and in a way cursed by every day being a good day for a mariner to take to the sea, whether for good or for bad."
Those who reach Florida call home to Cuba, perhaps inspiring others to attempt the trip despite the risks.
Yennier Martinez Diaz arrived in Florida on a raft with eight other people after 10 days at sea in August. The group of friends and neighbors from Camaguey, on Cuba's northern coast, built the raft with pieces of metal, wood and a motor from an old Russian tractor.
Diaz, 32, earned about $10 a week cutting brush and sugarcane. He said he wanted to help a brother with cancer by finding a higher-paying job in the U.S.
After the motor nearly ran out of gas, the rafters drifted for days in the open water. At one point, they hit a powerful storm and nearly drowned.
"I caution everyone not to come by sea," he said, his face still red from the sun.
Associated Press writer Michael Weissenstein reported this story in Havana and Christine Armario reported from Miami. AP writers Andrea Rodriguez in Havana, Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador, and Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed to this report. Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/@cearmario Christine Armario on Twitter: https://twitter.com/@cearmario