In an unexpected echo of the refugee crisis from two decades ago, a rising tide of Cubans in rickety, cobbled-together boats is fleeing the island and showing up in the waters off Florida.
Leonardo Heredia, a 24-year-old Cuban baker, for example, tried and failed to reach the shores of Florida eight times.
Last week, he and 21 friends from his Havana neighborhood gathered the combined know-how from their respective botched migrations and made a boat using a Toyota motor, scrap stainless steel and plastic foam. Guided by a pocket-size Garmin GPS, they finally made it to Florida on Mr. Heredia’s ninth attempt.
“Things that were bad in Cuba are now worse,” Mr. Heredia said. “If there was more money in Cuba to pay for the trips, everyone would go.”
Not since the rafter crisis of 1994 has the United States received so many Cuban migrants. The increase highlights the consequences of a United States immigration policy that gives preferential treatment to Cubans and recent reforms on the island that loosened travel restrictions, and it puts a harsh spotlight on the growing frustration of a post-Fidel Castro Cuba.
More Cubans took to the sea last year than in any year since 2008, when Raúl Castro officially took power and the nation hummed with anticipation. Some experts fear that the recent spike in migration could be a harbinger of a mass exodus, and they caution that the unseaworthy vessels have already left a trail of deaths.