But the seas were mostly empty except for speedboaters, sailors and streaks of brown algae. Despite fears that Cubans would take to the water — as thousands did in 1980, 1994 and to a lesser degree in 2016 — this month there has been no sign of a mass exodus.
Anything is possible in the coming days and weeks, but exiles and their families in South Florida say the data shows that Cubans are largely staying put.
Demonstrations in Miami, Los Angeles and Washington in recent days have urged the United States and other governments to impose sanctions on Havana that would, as one organization put it, “make Cuba change forever.” But others say the Biden administration should take a wait-and-see approach, noting that the goals of the demonstrators on the island may differ from those who fled the Communist regime years, or decades, ago.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing Tuesday on what it calls the “Historic protests in Cuba and the crackdown on free expression,” with testimony from human rights activists tracking allegations of arrests and repression in Cuba.
Analysts say the Cuban government, which has blamed the unrest on U.S. policies and intervention from dissidents, is unlikely to lose its grip on power that the late leader Fidel Castro solidified over six decades, even if new President Miguel Díaz-Canel has a weaker hold on it.
But in the heart of the exile community in South Florida, hopes soared that Cubans would continue protesting — and perhaps push through a change, or force multiparty elections — instead of attempting the risky voyage to the United States.
A rally drew thousands of demonstrators Saturday to Miami’s Freedom Tower, a national landmark called the “Ellis Island of the South” for welcoming thousands of Cuban refugees after Castro rose to power in 1959. Republicans and Democrats mingled in the crowd holding U.S. and Cuban flags. Others rallied on their boats in the bay.
“We’re here for people who are dying,” said Cindy Rodriguez-Pereira, a 39-year-old born in Cuba who came to the United States when she was 11.
Her stepfather, Oswaldo Amable, 63, held a sign that urged President Biden to take unspecified action against Cuba. He said he migrated to the United States in 1994 on a raft. rickety wood and Styrofoam raft that took five days to reach Florida. But he doubted many Cubans would make that journey now.
“They are asking for liberty,” he said of the demonstrators. “They want the Communists to go.”
Here on the humid, palm-tree-lined coast, home to the majority of the nation’s 2.3 million Cubans and Cuban Americans, Cuban flags flap from SUVs, and demonstrators bang pots and pans and chant practically every night on Little Havana’s Calle Ocho to support protesters back home.
Exiles have harrowing stories of their own journeys at sea, or the repression their families fled.
The Coast Guard has warned boaters in the United States against attempting to enter Cuban waters to show support for demonstrators or to drop off aid — unless they have prior permission. Scofflaws face having their vessel seized, and penalties of up to $250,000 a day in fines and five years in prison. No one had sought permission as of Monday, Coast Guard spokeswoman Nicole Groll said.
Cubans who set foot on U.S. soil after arriving by sea used to be allowed to stay in the United States, but President Barack Obama ended the “wet foot, dry foot” policy in his final days in office. Today, Cuban migrants often seek asylum, not unlike the large numbers of Venezuelans and Central Americans crossing the Mexico border.
Coast Guard crews have interdicted more than 550 Cubans at sea this fiscal year — up from 49 for all of last fiscal year, but far fewer than the 125,000 who arrived in 1980, the 35,000 after anti-government protests in 1994, and even the nearly 5,400 at-sea arrivals in fiscal 2016, in the months before Castro died.
One reason the number is smaller is that thousands more migrants are traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border to gain entry by land. Customs and Border Protection data shows that Cubans have made 26,000 attempts to cross that way so far this fiscal year, some more than once, up from 14,000 all of last year.
Some Cuban Americans in South Florida say they view mass migration with suspicion: The Castro regime for years dispatched migrants as a way to create a crisis in the United States, they say, and to get rid of dissidents.
Armando Ibarra, a publicist, said the Cuban regime has instigated migration crises in the past “as a weapon against the United States.”
“We have to be very clear that we won’t tolerate that,” he said. But he added, “The people on the island are not protesting asking for migration. They’re asking for freedom.”
Vanessa Garcia, a novelist and playwright, said this year “feels extremely different.” Never before has Cuba seen so many public protests in so many cities across the island.
“That first impulse is to jump into the water, but then you say, ‘No, it has to actually happen this time,’ ” she said. “The Cuban people want liberty.”
Garcia votes Democratic in Miami. Ibarra votes Republican. Despite their political differences, they were at the same pro-democracy rally in Miami on Saturday, where many protesters said they hoped Cubans would not attempt the dangerous journey by sea.
Some have tried. Earlier this month, a vessel carrying 22 Cuban migrants capsized in stormy seas some 26 miles southeast of Key West. They bobbed for hours before a cargo ship, the Western Carmen, spotted them, according to the Coast Guard. Nine are missing and presumed dead; 13 were rescued.
“We just started spotting person after person in the water,” said Coast Guard Cmdr. Justin Nadolny, of the cutter Thetis, calling their survival a “remarkable story of resiliency and grit.”
But there is nobody in South Florida to tell it, because officials said all survivors were repatriated to Cuba.
Grant, who piloted the patrol plane over the weekend, said he and others had searched for hours by air for the missing earlier this month and were saddened when they did not find them.
“I would worry about people putting their lives in danger,” said Grant, who is a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force on exchange with the Coast Guard. “We can’t be out here 24-7. We can’t catch everybody.”
Nick Miroff in Washington contributed to this report.