- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2006

MONA ISLAND, Puerto Rico (AP) — Droves of Cubans are taking the back door into the United States by crossing some of the world’s stormiest seas and clambering onto this rugged speck of an island belonging to Puerto Rico.

Forsaking the heavily patrolled Florida Straits, Cubans increasingly are reaching the U.S. by flying to the Dominican Republic and traveling about 40 miles by boat to Mona Island.

In fiscal 2001, no more than five Cubans landed on Mona. In the past nine months, 579 have arrived, said Jorge Diaz, a senior U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent.

Under the general U.S. “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy, Cubans who reach U.S. soil get to stay, while those caught at sea are returned. A Puerto Rican nature reserve inhabited by a few park rangers and lots of iguanas, Mona Island, like the rest of Puerto Rico, is as much a part of the U.S. as Miami is.

On a recent morning, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents sailed 45 miles from mainland Puerto Rico to Mona to pick up two groups of Cubans. Approached from the east, among leaping dolphins, the 6.7-square-mile island looks forbidding, rising in sulfur-colored cliffs. But on the western side, facing the Dominican Republic, a white-sand beach beckons.

Eight Cubans sat at a picnic table under a palm tree, having spent 12 hours in a smuggler’s open boat. Arriving just past midnight, they spent the rest of the night on mattresses provided by the island’s rangers. They said they were scared that they would either drown or be caught by authorities during the journey.

“We prayed for 12 hours, aloud or silent, but we prayed,” said Richard Echevarria, his green T-shirt stiff with sweat and salt spray. Another boat carrying nine Cubans had arrived two days earlier.

The Cubans said they flew to the Dominican Republic on commercial airliners. Even accomplishing that step required patience and luck. To leave Cuba legally, Cubans generally must get a visa from the country they plan to visit, plus a letter of invitation from a citizen of that country. They then must seek an exit visa from the Cuban government, which is sometimes denied. The process can take months.

The Cubans — who couldn’t fly from the Dominican Republic to the United States without a U.S. visa — then paid between $1,500 and $2,000 to be taken by boat to Mona. Dominican smugglers are turning huge profits in this growing industry, and few are prosecuted.

“If they hear you speaking with a Cuban accent in Santo Domingo, someone is going to come up to you and offer to arrange the trip,” said Jorge Bueno, one of the new arrivals. Another Cuban said he hadn’t left the Dominican capital’s airport before someone sidled up with an offer.

“It’s very lucrative. It’s better than trafficking drugs,” Mr. Bueno remarked as he donned an orange life vest and settled into the back of the Customs boat.

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