Undoubtedly, you have heard the stories of Cuban citizens using boats or hand
made rafts to flee the island under the cover of darkness. This was a major prob-
lem in the past, but since the end of the Special Period , the prevalence of this
activity has decreased. Despite being an extremely dangerous act, it is estimated
that about 10 000 to 15 000 Cuban citizens, especially the poorer ones, or those
with pressing needs, choose this option to flee the island, each year.
The Cuban word to describe exiles who have clandestinely left the country by boat
is balseros . This is a term derived from the Spanish word for raft, which is balsa .
Most modern Cubans no longer recognize it to be a realistic option for emigrating
from the island, nor do they acknowledge the need for it under the present situ-
ation. Many young people joke about it as an act of exaggerated desperation.
The Cuban government has programs in place and multinational agreements
which enable Cubans to safely and legally emigrate. Every year the United States
issues over 20,000 visas which permit Cubans to legally leave the island and im-
migrate to America. The number of legal visas granted under the program is still
small compared to the demand, but it is a viable option for the majority of people
who want to leave for the purpose of family reunification or marriage.
Interesting Fact: Contrary to popular belief, attempting to leave the country in order
to seek exile in a foreign nation is not considered a serious offense by Cuban law
enforcement. The majority of Cubans who attempt to flee, and are unsuccessful in
reaching their destination, are simply returned to Cuba where they are permitted to
continue living their lives, without any incarceration or punishment. On the other
hand, the brokers and speed boat operators who attempt to profit by trafficking ex-
iles and smuggling Cubans to America are treated more severely. Their enterprise
is seen as unscrupulous and dangerous to the lives of all boat occupants and pun-
ishments are harsh.