Cubans fleeing their country by sea use three types of boats: balsas, botes and modern go-fast boats. The balsas are rafts made of scraps such as inner tubes, styrofoam cups, bamboo sticks, barrels, used cars or any other “invention.” Botes are conventional rowboats powered by oars or small motors. Modern go-fast boats are racing boats used by smugglers who currently charge about $10,000 per passenger.
It is 90 miles to South Florida from the north side of Cuba;150 miles to the Cayman Islands from the south side of Cuba and 300-500 to the Caribbean coast of Central America. Between 1959 and 2008 at least 213,000 Cubans survived the boat trip and either entered the U.S. or were returned to Cuba. An estimated 16,000 – 20,000 probably died at sea.
Although most Cubans leave from the north side of the island trying to reach the United States, those departing from the south side wash up in the Cayman Islands, Mexico, Belize and Honduras. In addition to those who set out on their own, smugglers have in recent years brought over 10,000 Cubans to the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico where they travel north to the U.S. border.
Under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act (P.L. 89-762) nearly 100% of Cubans who manage to put both feet on dry U.S. soil are allowed to stay. One year after arrival they are eligible for legal resident status (a “green card”). However, since 1995 anyone picked up at sea has been returned to Cuba via the port of Cabañas. They are not criminally prosecuted in the U.S. or Cuba.