'There is nothing worse than Cuba:' Thousands flee island to reach Florida despite unsafe trek

It’s not the site most cruise passengers expect to see when they sail out of Florida ports. Some passengers spotted makeshift boats, packed with people desperate to get out of Cuba. 

In 20 years of going on cruises, Angie Peralta has never seen anything like what she saw on her cruise over Labor Day weekend. 

"So, I go out to my balcony and there’s the boat, it was full of people from Cuba asking for water and just basically asking for help," Peralta said. 

She said the cruise ship crew offered the migrants water, blankets, and life vests. 

"They started clapping, they said thank you, you know it was nice," Peralta said.

It’s a site that’s becoming more common. Thousands of Cubans board flimsy boats in desperate attempts to reach the United States.

The U.S. Coast Guard 7th district Southeast covers areas like Florida, Puerto Rico, Georgia, and South Carolina. The Coast Guard told FOX 35 News it has stopped 6,182 Cuban migrants in the 2022 fiscal year. Those numbers are up significantly from the 2021 fiscal year which saw 838. In 2020, the Coast Guard stopped 49 migrants at sea, during the height of the pandemic. 

U.S. Coast Guard public affairs specialist Nicole Groll said oftentimes the boats the migrants travel in are built with poor materials and aren’t safe. 

"It’s wood surrounded by styrofoam, floating canisters, tarps, plywood, and ultimately anything that will float," Groll said. 

Once the U.S. Coast Guard makes contact, migrants are given food, water, shelter, and basic medical attention before they’re sent back home. Stopping for migrant boats is something the Coast Guard said cruise ships are obligated to do because of the United Nations Laws of the seas.

The Coast Guard blames political and economic instability for pushing people out of Cuba. 

University of Central Florida junior, Kalec Rodriguez knows how they feel. He came to the U.S. six years ago and isn’t shocked at seeing the increasing numbers of Cuban migrants wanting to come to the U.S. 

"What drives people to come in masses is that there is nothing worse than Cuba," Rodriguez said. "I would understand because when I was there, there was nothing worse than Cuba." 

Most of his years there, he didn’t have school supplies. "We didn’t have pencils, we didn’t have erasers, we didn’t have notebooks, books, not even tables for us, or chairs for us to sit on." 

Other Cuban American students said the COVID-19 pandemic only made an already bad situation worse. 

"Sometimes there is no food, no milk for kids. There’s no bread, there’s nothing," Elizabet Perez said. 

"They’re willing to put their lives on the line just to go somewhere else even if they don’t have the proper means to get here," Rolando Gomez added. 

Haydee Oves works for YOCUBA, a shipping company that helps send packages to Cuba. She says people are shipping basic necessities like food, milk, and clothes to the Island.

"Medicine is another thing, they don’t have anything over there," Oves said. 

While it’s something Peralta was shocked to see on her trip, the compassion the crew and other passengers had is something she’ll remember. 

"Everybody that was out on the balcony started clapping because it was a very heartfelt thing, you know I’ve never seen such a thing," she said. 

Maria Gonzalez, a UCF Cuban American student, added "I know a lot of people might see those videos and be like why are they doing this, that’s so dangerous or they shouldn’t be coming. I think you just need to have empathy because if you’ve never been there, you don’t really know what it’s like."