MIAMI — Now safe in Florida, Julio Martínez, described the multicountry journey that started in Cuba last month and got him reunited with his family members in Miami after 21 days of perilous travel.
Martinez, who is 63 and has only one leg, particularly remembers how he felt when he and others were about to cross the turbulent and often deadly river that separates Mexico and the U.S. As night fell over Piedras Negras, he recalled, the Río Grande looked like a liquid highway.
“Seeing that the water was a little above the waist, two companions of the group told me to hold onto them,” said Martínez. With someone else carrying his canes and his prosthetic leg in a backpack, “little by little we went through the current until we reached the shore.”
Following a journey across highways, jungles, rivers, bridges and cliffs, Martínez is now reunited with his wife, mother and two daughters. He left Cuba on April 3 to Nicaragua, from where he made his way to the U.S. southern border.
“The prosthesis is uncomfortable and I was only able to put it on for a part of the route in Guatemala,” he said, explaining that the chafing caused his skin to break and peel. “In my current health condition, I thought about it a lot before making the trip. But I said, ‘I’m going to take a chance.’”
The number of Cubans arriving at the border could reach a historic level by the end of the year.
Around 35,000 Cubans were apprehended in April at the U.S. Mexico border, according to unpublished data cited by The Washington Post, making up the second-highest nationality of those crossing the border after people from Mexico. Around 32,000 Cubans were apprehended in March, up 460 percent over the last year, and more than the number from Central America.
More journeying from Nicaragua
Most Cuban migrants are flying to Nicaragua and making their way by land to the U.S.-Mexico border. Nicaragua, a close ally of Cuba, dropped its visa requirements for Cubans in November.
“On the flight to Managua [Nicaragua’s capital], almost all the Cubans were planning to make the same journey as me,” said Martínez, adding that many of them crossed the Rio Grande with him.
Some experts have speculated over Nicaragua’s decision to waive visa requirements for Cubans. The decision was announced at a time of heightened tension in the communist-run island. Historic, islandwide protests on July 11 led to a heavy crackdown, scores of arrests and stiff sentences.
“This opening from Nicaragua to Cuban migrants is at least suspicious,” said Jorge Duany, a migration expert and director of Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute.
“When the official announcement was made, the Nicaraguan government claimed the move was designed to improve trade relations and tourism,” said Duany. “A Nicaraguan official even said something striking: that the Cubans who were coming to her country were going to see the volcanoes. That obviously does not make a lot of sense.”
The majority of those who arrive in Managua, he noted, do not seem to be tourists or merchants, but rather “people who are desperate to leave Cuba and embark on the journey to the United States.”
Nearly a dozen Cubans living on the island told Noticias Telemundo that they are making preparations to travel to Nicaragua and then to the United States. Some of them said they had put their houses and other belongings up for sale in order to raise money for the trip (about $10,000).
“In addition to the money they gave me, I sold my electric motorcycle and other items to pay for the trip,” said Henry Piloto, a doctor who recently arrived in Miami after buying a ticket from Havana to Managua, to later cross part of Central America with the help of smugglers, or coyotes.
The United States has expressed concern over the number of Cubans arriving at the border. U.S. and Cuban officials met in April in Washington for migration talks, the highest level talks to take place since 2018.
“Enabling safe, legal and orderly migration between Cuba and the United States remains in the mutual interest of the United States and Cuba,” the State Department said in a statement after the meeting. Washington seeks to “promote greater respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba,” the statement added.
One of the issues the Biden administration is facing is that Cuba has been refusing to accept deportation flights from the U.S. Noticias Telemundo contacted the Cuban International Press Center for comment, but did not receive an immediate response.
High point of discontent
Cubans are not only arriving to American soil by land, but are also making the more perilous journey by sea on makeshift boats. Hundreds of them have been intercepted by the Coast Guard in recent months and others have died trying to reach the Florida coast.
Cuba largely blames the U.S. for the increase in migration, citing the ongoing U.S. economic sanctions and the fact that the U.S. was processing tens of thousands of fewer Cuban visas following the downsizing of the embassy during the Trump administration.
For Martínez, the main reason for undertaking his journey was simple.
“I came to reunite with my family, apart from the problems that our country has, which are economic and others,” he said.
His plans in the United States, he says, are like “anyone’s.”
“If I can work, I will work, and I would like to be able to use a higher quality prosthesis,” he said. “And being able to start, like any citizen, a normal life.”
Reporter Maylin Legañoa contributed to this story.