A Cuban migrant crossed the Rio Grande with one leg. I’m going to take the risk.

MIAMI — Now safe in Florida, Julio Martinez described the multi-country journey that began in Cuba last month and reunited him with his family in Miami after 21 days of perilous travel.

Martinez, 63, with only one leg, particularly remembers how he felt when he and others were about to cross the turbulent and often deadly river that separates Mexico from the US as night fell over Piedras Negras, he recalled. , the Rio Grande seemed like a liquid highway.

“Seeing that the water was a little above the waist, two companions of the group told me to grab them,” Martínez said. With someone else carrying his canes and his prosthetic leg in a backpack, “little by little we went through the current until we reached the shore.

After a journey through highways, jungles, rivers, bridges and cliffs, Martínez is now reunited with his wife, mother and two daughters. He left Cuba on April 3 for Nicaragua, from where he headed to the southern border of the United States.

“The prosthesis is uncomfortable and I was only able to put it on part of the way in Guatemala,” he said, explaining that the friction caused his skin to break and peel. “In my current health condition, I thought about it a lot before making the trip. But I said, ‘I’m going to take a chance.’”

The number of Cubans arriving at the border could reach a historic level by the end of the year.

Some 35,000 Cubans were apprehended in April on the US-Mexico border, according to unpublished data cited by The Washington Post, making them the second-highest nationality of those crossing the border after Mexicans. About 32,000 Cubans were detained in March, 460 percent more than last year, and more than the number in Central America.

More trips from Nicaragua

Most Cuban immigrants fly into Nicaragua and head overland to the US-Mexico border. Nicaragua, a close ally of Cuba, eliminated its visa requirements for Cubans in November.

“On the flight to Managua [Nicaragua’s capital]Almost all Cubans had planned to make the same trip as me,” Martínez said, adding that many of them crossed the Rio Grande with him.

Some experts have speculated about Nicaragua’s decision to waive visa requirements for Cubans. The decision was announced at a time of increased tension on the communist-ruled island. Historic protests across the island on July 11 resulted in heavy repression, dozens of arrests and harsh sentences.

“This opening of Nicaragua to Cuban immigrants is suspicious to say the least,” said Jorge Duany, an expert on migration and director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

“When the official announcement was made, the Nicaraguan government stated that the measure was designed to improve trade relations and tourism,” Duany said. “Even a Nicaraguan official said something striking: that the Cubans who came to his country were going to see the volcanoes. That obviously doesn’t make much sense.”

Most of those who arrive in Managua, he pointed out, do not seem to be tourists or merchants, but “people desperate to leave Cuba and undertake the trip to the United States.”

Nearly a dozen Cubans residing on the island told Noticias Telemundo that they are preparing to travel to Nicaragua and then to the United States. Some of them said they had put their houses and other belongings up for sale to raise money for the trip (about $10,000).

“In addition to the money they gave me, I sold my electric motorcycle and other items to pay for the trip,” said Henry Piloto, a doctor who recently arrived in Miami after buying a ticket from Havana to Managua, to then cross part of Central America with the help of smugglers or coyotes.

The United States has expressed concern about the number of Cubans arriving at the border. US and Cuban officials met in Washington in April for talks on migration, the highest-level talks since 2018.

“Enabling safe, legal and orderly migration between Cuba and the United States remains in the mutual interest of the United States and Cuba,” the State Department said in a statement after the meeting. Washington seeks to “promote greater respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba,” the statement added.

One of the problems facing the Biden administration is that Cuba has refused to accept deportation flights from the US. Noticias Telemundo contacted the Cuba International Press Center for comment but did not receive an immediate response.

High point of discontent

Cubans are not only reaching US soil by land, they are also making the most dangerous journey by sea in makeshift boats. Hundreds of them have been intercepted by the Coast Guard in recent months and others have died trying to reach the Florida coast.

Cuba largely blames the US for the surge in migration, citing ongoing US economic sanctions and the fact that the US was processing tens of thousands fewer Cuban visas after reducing the embassy during the Trump administration.

For Martínez, the main reason for embarking on his trip was simple.

“I came to meet with my family, apart from the problems that our country has, which are economic and others,” he said.

His plans in the United States, he says, are like “anyone’s.”

“If I can work, I will work, and I would like to be able to use a higher quality prosthesis,” he said. “And be able to start, like any citizen, a normal life.”

Reporter Maylin Legañoa contributed to this story.

An earlier version of this story first appeared on Telemundo.com.

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