Mon. Jul 26th, 2021

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio warned that Cuban officials will likely encourage mass migration to the United States in response to ongoing street protests throughout Cuba calling for the end of the dictatorship.

Rubio, who is Cuban-American and the top Republican on the Senate committee responsible for Latin American affairs, said Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel’s government will encourage an exodus, likely by boat, if it perceives the U.S. as backing political protesters.

“Regime in Cuba will now threaten that a rafter or Mariel style crisis ‘is inevitable’ if the U.S. doesn’t stop encouraging protests & return to Obama policy,” Rubio tweeted. “We must not cave to blackmail & [President Joe Biden] must warn them that encouraging mass migration will be considered a hostile action.”

History suggests that Rubio’s statement could come true.

In 1994, the last time Cuba saw anti-regime protests of this magnitude, the government under Fidel Castro opened maritime borders and around 35,000 men, women and children, attempted to leave the country mostly on makeshift rafts and boats not intended for ocean voyages.

Some of the balseros made it to South Florida and others died at sea. The majority were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard and ferried to the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Eventually, most of the Cuban refugees were allowed to emigrate to the United States after Castro and then-President Bill Clinton agreed to the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy and the U.S. agreed to issue 20,000 visas per year.

The wet-foot, dry-foot policy was ended by President Barack Obama during his last week in office. And there’s an ongoing backlog for visas as processing at the U.S. Embassy in Havana remains suspended, in part due to mysterious sonic attacks on embassy personnel that led the U.S. government to remove most of them in 2017.

The largest exodus of Cuban refugees was the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when 125,000 Cubans left after Castro allowed anyone to leave who wished to do so.

Biden issued a statement Monday morning supporting the protests but did not directly address the possibility of mass migration.

“We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime,” Biden said in a statement.

Rubio also said that military officials are threatening junior soldiers if they do not carry out orders to attack protesters. On Sunday, Diaz-Canel ordered supporters to fight protesters.

“The order to fight has been given — into the street, revolutionaries!” Diaz-Canel said in a public address.

In response, Rubio said soldiers have been threatened with the prospect of not gaining admittance to college.

“Reports that the communist regime in Cuba is threatening young members of the military,” Rubio tweeted. “They are being told they will be denied admission to a university after completing their mandatory military service if they do not follow orders to attack unarmed protesters.”

Alex Daugherty is the Washington correspondent for the Miami Herald, covering South Florida from the nation’s capital. Previously, he worked as the Washington correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and for the Herald covering politics in Miami.