Raft with American flag intercepted off Havana, Cuba

HAVANA – Onlookers scratched their heads at a peculiar scene just off Havana on Monday – the Cuban Coast Guard intercepted nearly a dozen passengers from a handmade blue raft with a flag American painted along the bow.

Handmade rafts are hardly out of the ordinary in Cuba, where countless ships have set out to try to reach the shores of Florida. Growing waves of migrants have abandoned the Caribbean island over the past year by land, air and sea, an exodus fueled by a complex mix of deepening and deepening crises in Cuba.

Many of these migrants – often referred to as balseros – usually set off in rafts from remote parts of the island, shrouded in darkness to avoid being intercepted.

On Monday, the Associated Press – amid a pack of reporters scrambling to decipher what was going on – watched the passengers exit the raft in broad daylight, less than 500 yards from the US Embassy, ​​just off the city’s emblematic Malecón seawall.

The Coast Guard then dragged the craft, the reporters running in tow, along the Malecón and into a harbor as a Spanish-speaking onlooker shouted “Let them go!” Many more Cuban spectators looked confused.

Cuban officials acknowledged what had happened in plain sight, but did not explain it.

“We saw the same thing but we don’t have more details,” a Cuban official told The Associated Press.

Basic access to information is scarce and reality can bend the imagination in Cuba. But the incident happened at a notable time.

Last month the government strenuously denied causing the deaths of seven people, including a two-year-old girl, when its coastguard collided with the boat of a group of migrants traveling at night further offshore. Some survivors accused the government of ramming the boat multiple times.

Most emigrants seek to enter the United States through the U.S.-Mexico border, where Cubans were stopped nearly 221,000 times this fiscal year, a 471% increase from the previous year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.

This migration, combined with the reopening of US visas and consular services on the island, has accelerated talks between the two governments, which share a historically strained relationship.

The latest came over the weekend, when three visiting Democratic congressmen met with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel and other Cuban leaders. Lawmakers left the island on Monday, US officials told the AP.

US authorities also noted that migration was among the topics discussed.

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