Hundreds of Cubans crowded along a sea wall near Havana before dawn Thursday, waiting for anything even remotely like a boat to carry them to the United States. With so many Cubans desperate to flee, Florida's governor declared a refugee emergency and asked for federal help.
There was no immediate police response at the beach in Havana, indicating Fidel Castro may have carried out his threat to loosen restrictions on emigration.In Florida, Gov. Lawton Chiles declared a Cuban refugee emergency and asked the administration to help with the hundreds of Cubans streaming into Florida, the largest migration from the island since the 1980 Mariel boatlift.
The U.S. Coast Guard picked up 537 Cubans on Wednesday, the highest single-day total since Mariel brought 125,000 people to Florida in five months. So far this year, 6,872 Cubans have arrived, compared with 3,656 in 1993.
"There are hundreds of people, perhaps thousands, massing on the shores of Cuba," Chiles said. "A true emergency exists for the state of Florida."
Cuban journalists, speaking by telephone, said police were hardly hindering would-be refugees as they gathered at midnight in Cojimar, about 10 miles east of Havana.
Some who gathered at the harbor carried bottles of water and had brought their children, telling reporters they were waiting to abandon the country.
Others took to the water with ramshackle craft that looked like the sort of raft children might build on a summer afternoon - inner tubes, wood and fabric lashed together tenuously.