A ship carrying more than 800 Haitians who were apparently trying to reach the US has landed instead in central Cuba, in what is thought to be the largest group yet in a swelling exodus of people from the crisis-stricken Caribbean country.
The Communist party newspaper Granma quoted Red Cross officials in the province of Villa Clara as saying the 842 people crammed on to the vessel had been given medical attention and were being housed at a tourist campground.
State broadcaster Telecubanacan showed images of a single large gray ship crowded with Haitians lining the decks from bow to stern, and even on the rooftop, as it swayed in rough, windswept seas.
The new group that arrived on Tuesday at Villa Blanca, about 180 miles east of Havana, included 70 children and 97 women, two of them pregnant, the Telecubanacán broadcaster reported on Facebook.
The boat was found near Caibarien, not far from Cayo Santa Maria, a popular vacation destination home to a strip of all-inclusive resort hotels. Several days of stormy weather and thunderstorms reportedly forced the boat towards Cuba.
While the numbers on a single ship seemed unprecedented, it is not unusual for currents and winds to carry Haitians to Cuba, which borders most of the sea path between Haiti and the US. Cuba returns most of the arriving migrants to Haiti.
A crumbling economy and a spike in gang-related violence and kidnappings in Haiti have prompted thousands of people to flee the country in the past year, with US authorities saying the number detained in and around US jurisdictions in the Caribbean has doubled.
Vast numbers of Haitian migrants have taken to sea, hoping to reach the United States.
Many stray off course, poorly equipped for the voyage or overwhelmed by weather, and end up landing in the Bahamas, Cuba or elsewhere in the Caribbean Sea.
The US Coast Guard and other nations have reported intercepting boats carrying well over 100 Haitians in recent months.
On Tuesday, the US Coast Guard said it had stopped a cargo sailing ship carrying 153 Haitian people near the Florida Keys.
Earlier this month, the Coast Guard rescued 36 Haitian people and found another 11 dead – all women – after a boat capsized in waters north-west of Puerto Rico. The rescue came just days after another 68 people were rescued in treacherous waters between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.
In April, the US Coast Guard spotted more than 130 Haitian people onboard a boat near the Bahamas. A month prior, another 140 people landed in the Florida Keys.
US Coast Guard crews have interdicted about 4,500 Haitians since October last year. Many were trying to come ashore in the Florida Keys in overloaded vessels.
More than 3,000 of those people have been found since mid-March, signalling that the pace has been picking up in the spring.
Meanwhile, Cuba’s government reported a group of 292 Haitians had reached the province of Ciego de Ávila in February.
Cuba is suffering from a migration crisis of its own, ravaged by an economic and social crisis that has led to shortages of food, medicine and other basic goods. Tens of thousands of Cubans have left the island in recent months for the United States.