The United States Coast Guard has said it returned 119 Cuban migrants to their country in a dozen operations over the course of three days, as growing numbers of Cubans attempt to reach the US by water.
In a statement issued late on Tuesday, the Coast Guard said the migrants were swept up in the South Florida Straits from the Bahamas to the Florida Keys after their boats were found adrift offshore.
“In each instance, the Coast Guard helped secure the U.S. border and prevented these perilous sea voyages from ending in tragedy,” it said.
Cuban state media said Tuesday’s repatriation was the largest in four years.
Footage from the docks on Cuba’s north shore showed masked health workers dressed in white receiving the migrants, who had been delivered by boat by the US authorities.
The development comes at a time when Cuba’s economy is battered by mounting US sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hobbled vital international tourism to the Caribbean island.
During the past decades, the dangerous crossing between Cuba and the US – often complicated by swift ocean currents, relentless sun and wind and shoddy vessels – has claimed the lives of many Cubans.
Coast Guard figures show 586 Cuban migrants have attempted to reach US soil in the first three months of the 2022 fiscal year alone – a marked increase from 2021, when the Coast Guard repatriated a total of 838 Cubans.
The number of Cubans arriving at the US-Mexico border also hit its highest in a decade between October 2020 and May 2021, according to US immigration statistics, as many Cubans turn to overland routes to attempt to enter the US.
The Cuban government says it advocates for legal, orderly and safe migration.
It has blamed the US for the uptick in migration, saying the country’s policies, including the Cold War-era embargo, encourage Cubans to risk their lives and leave the island.
In July, Cubans took to the streets in protest against soaring prices, food and medicine shortages, and other socioeconomic problems that have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In November, another planned round of opposition demonstrations fizzled amid laws that have banned protests, a heavy police presence in the streets, and the detention of several opposition figures.
US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said last year following the unprecedented protests that Cubans leaving the island “will not come to the United States”.