ON a Saturday morning, Alfredo Sanchez, a gray- haired, Cuban American sugar cane farmer, flies a twin engine Cessna from an airport near Miami into the Florida Straits, looking for Cubans fleeing for the United States on rafts.
A weekend volunteer for Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue), Mr. Sanchez and three other Miami volunteers venture as close as 17 miles to the coast of Cuba, the country Sanchez fled soon after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959.
Although the national media spotlight has been focused on Haitian asylum-seekers, there's a similar exodus from Cuba. As of July 8, the United States Coast Guard had picked up 4,059 rafters this year. That is more than the 3,656 counted in all of 1993, and the highest number since 125,000 Cubans fled from the port of Mariel, Cuba, in 1980.
Brothers to the Rescue, formed by the Cuban exile community in 1991 to help save the lives of compatriots fleeing Cuba, has been seeing an increasing number of rafters since the beginning of this year.
Off on the horizon, the silhouette of hills in Cuba appears faintly. On a clearer day, Sanchez tells a reporter, the skyline of Havana is visible. He drops altitude to 400 feet, banks westward, and the search enters high gear.
One man monitors a radar screen. Two others scan the glittering ocean below, looking to find anyone on a raft. At 400 feet, rafts are easy to miss.
After six hours of crisscrossing the strait, the plane spots six men marooned on one of the Anguila Islands, about 45 miles from Cuba. The plane drops food, bottles of water, and a two-way radio to the men. Later that afternoon, the Coast Guard swings by to rescue them.
At Casa del Balsero (House of Rafters), a shelter in Miami for Cubans who arrive by raft and have no family members in the US to take them in, the number of new arrivals has gone through the roof. Last week, the three-bedroom house had 16 men in it. In June, a total of 26 people lived there, the highest number ever, says Arturo Rodriguez, a volunteer at the shelter.
The new arrivals stay at the shelter for a maximum of 45 days, during which they are helped to secure work permits and jobs.
Eduardo Companioni arrived at the house on June 22. Leaving the eastern Cuban town of Nuevitas, he and 12 others floated for four days on a raft of empty oil drums and lumber - seasick, out of food and water, and battered by waves ``as high as a house.'' A cargo ship rescued them and brought them to Miami.
Mr. Companioni says he held no job in Cuba; the authorities suspected him of antigoverment activity and blacklisted him. Economic conditions on the island are so hard that some younger Cubans like him will risk dying at sea to get to the US, he says.
Jesus Iglesia used to work on a sugar cane plantation in Camaguey, but lost his job and couldn't find another. Even when he held a job, he says, government deductions from his paycheck left little to live on.
And because his father had been a political prisoner, Mr. Iglesia says he was not trusted for government jobs. ``There are no rights. You can't speak,'' Iglesia says. ``Every day things are getting worse for Cubans but better for tourists.''
Leonardo Basulto says he wouldn't attempt the journey again, no matter how bad things get in Cuba.
Mr. Basulto and two others stole a rickety government boat, whose engine conked out within six hours. The waves tossed the boat about like a tin can, ruining their food and water the first day. On day five, a Mexican Coast Guard boat rescued them. Later they made their way to Miami.
No one knows how many people may have perished crossing the Florida Straits on rafts. Jose Basulto, president of Brothers to the Rescue, says the number of deaths may equal the number of rescues. The group has often found rafts on the ocean with no one aboard.
Analysts here say that the increasing number of rafters arriving here indicates worsening economic conditions in Cuba.
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc that had propped up Cuba's economy, the country is facing serious economic problems not seen before under Castro.
``People fled Cuba when the economy was good. Those people can make a credible case that they fled political repression,'' said Anthony Bryan, a professor of International Relations at the University of Miami. Cubans fleeing now are likely to be fleeing for economic reasons, he said.
Unlike Haitians, who must wait outside the US while applying for political asylum, the US does not ask Cubans if they wanted asylum here because the economy back home is bad.
The special treatment for Cubans dates back to 1966, when the US Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act, granting sanctuary in the US for any Cuban who wanted it. The law has no expiration date.