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Cruise ship rescues 18 Cuban migrants before presidential visit

More than 4,400 Cubans fled in boats during FY 2015. President Obama has promised to push for human rights as the US restores diplomatic relations with Cuba, but some say little has changed.  

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    Mexican Navy personnel help Cuban migrants after being rescued in Cozumel, Mexico, Saturday, March 19, 2016. According to a US Coast Guard news release, "18 reported Cuban migrants were picked up by the Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas cruise ship west of Marco Island, Florida. The 18 migrants were reportedly suffering from severe dehydration and claimed they left Cuba 22 days ago where nine of the migrants perished at sea during the journey."
    Angel Villegas/AP
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The Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas cruise ship provided food and aid to 18 Cuban migrants found 130 miles west of Marco Island, Florida, on Friday, the latest in an uptick of migrants as Cubans and Americans wait for signs of change from the thaw in US-Cuban relations.

"They could barely walk off the vessel itself," Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney told the Associated Press. Survivors "were weak and they were shaking."

The migrants, who say they spent 22 days in a 30-foot boat, told officials that nine others had died at sea.

"Our deepest condolences to the families of the nine people who recently did lose their lives," Coast Guard Captain Mark Gordon said, according to Reuters. "Unfortunately, tragedy is all too common when taking to the sea in homemade vessels with no safety or navigation equipment."

Coast Guard officials said the survivors would be taken to the cruise ship's next stop in Cozumel, Mexico. Under US policies often referred to as "wet foot, dry foot," Cuban migrants found at sea are typically repatriated or brought to a third country. Migrants who make it to the United States, however, are often allowed to stay for a year, and then pursue a green card, leading some immigration advocates to criticize a double standard in terms of US treatment of Cuban migrants and South and Central Americans. 

US officials have not signaled that the policy will change, despite a series of historic changes to open up US-Cuban relations after more than half a century of embargo. While most aspects of the trade embargo instituted after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution will remain in place, the Obama administration has reopened the embassy in Havana, restored mail service and direct flights, loosened travel and banking restrictions, and removed Cuba from the State Department's list of "state sponsors for terrorism." 

President Obama himself begins a three-day trip to Cuba on Sunday, the first presidential visit since 1928. He has promised critics to meet with dissidents and push President Raúl Castro for human rights reforms, which many observers warn is easier said than done.

Cubans who see few immediate signs of change are setting off for Florida in growing numbers, the Coast Guard has said. Whereas 4,473 Cubans tried to come by boat in fiscal year 2015, which ended last September, 1, 536 made the crossing between October and December 2015 alone. Two other boats were intercepted last week, and passengers returned to Cuba. 

Some are concerned that their relative immigration privileges, compared to those of other countries' nationals, could change as a result of the thaw, Coast Guard officials told NBC in January.

"The U.S. government has clearly stated that policy is not changing, and we want to make sure people understand that," said Captain Mark Fedor, who said inaccurate rumors seemed to be causing migrants to be "more hostile, they're being more violent to our boarding team members."

More than 8,600 dissidents were detained in Cuba last year, according to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, DC. Critics of the White House's new policies, and Obama's presidential visit, say that the moves legitimize a repressive regime. 

Obama has pledged to meet with dissidents on Tuesday. Many, however, say they have been detained or harassed leading up to his visit, repeating similar patterns before visits from Pope Francis and other dignitaries. Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White group, an organization for relatives and wives of jailed dissidents, said she would wait to hear the president's speech in Havana before deciding whether to join the group in their meeting with him on Tuesday.

"It’s not the moment," she told the UK Telegraph. "He would be very welcome if things were getting better. But it’s not. Nothing has changed."

Cuban human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez was detained and released upon his return from Miami to Cuba on Saturday, adding to advocates' fears. Mr. Sanchez is also scheduled to speak with Obama during his visit.

But other rights groups believe a fresh approach to cross-strait relations are the right move, after decades of little progress.

"Our view is that Obama is doing the right thing in terms of moving away from the old policies, which didn’t work and gave the Cuban government a pretext for clamping down, painting itself as a victim," Human Rights Watch Cuba analyst Daniel Wilkinson, told the Telegraph.

Capitol Hill is coming around to that view as well, despite staunch opposition, particularly from older Republican leaders.

As Alana Tummino, the head of the Cuba working group at the Americas Society/ Council of the Americas, told the Monitor:

What we’re seeing is a pretty significant change in bipartisan politics in Washington as it relates to Cuba... There are a growing number of representatives and senators on both sides of the aisle who are coming forward and saying, "What we’ve been doing for over five decades hasn’t been working, we have to take a fresh look at this."

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