In this Aug. 31, 1994, Cuban refugee Odalis Rumayor clutches her 7-month-old baby Milady Garcia after being rescued at sea by the crew of the USCG Monhegan in the Florida Straits. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
MIAMI (AP) -- One early morning this April, Dairon Morera climbed onto a raft of aluminum tanks with 22 other people, revved up a Volvo car motor and pushed off the Cuban shore, joining a never-ending stream of islanders desperate to reach the United States.<br />
"The biggest dream a Cuban has is to leave," said Morera, who was frustrated by government limits on his pizza business. He had no money for airplane tickets or smugglers, so decided to risk his life at sea.<br />
Morera's journey was so turbulent that many people vomited, but all made it alive in just 20 hours. They ran ashore in the Florida Keys, hugging each other and shouting "Libertad!"<br />
The number of Cubans trying this perilous journey is up sharply this year, with nearly 3,000 picked up by U.S. authorities so far, double last year's pace.<br />
The special status Cuban migrants have thanks to U.S. efforts undermine their communist government is a constant pull. While illegal U.S. immigrants fleeing poverty or violence in other countries are deported, Cubans are welcomed.<br />
The trip can take two or three days if all goes well. But storms, strong currents, sharks and jellyfish abound. Without navigational tools or powerful engines, people can be swept far from any coast, running out of water and dying in the merciless sun.<br />
"If we don't find them and they don't land, their chances of survival decrease every day they are out there," said Capt. Mark Fedor, the Coast Guard's enforcement chief in Miami.<br />
Twenty years have passed since Fidel Castro eased political pressure on his communist government by telling Cubans they were free to leave. His declaration in August 1994 launched a sudden exodus of 35,000 islanders. Thousands were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and spent months behind barbed wire at the U.S. Navy base on Cuba's eastern edge.
A blustery winter storm dumped snow and ice across the West on Wednesday, making driving treacherous in the mountains from California to the Rockies and forcing residents and party-goers in some usually sun-soaked cities to bundle up for a frosty New Year's.
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