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Economy

What's Driving The New Migrant Exodus From Cuba

Since Cuba reopened its borders last December after COVID closures, the number of people leaving the island has gone up significantly. Migration has been a constant in Cuban life since the 1950s. But this article in Cuba's independent news outlet El Toque shows just how important migration is to understand the ordeals of everyday life on the island.

March for the 69th anniversary of the beginning of the Cuban Revolution.

March for the 69th anniversary of the beginning of the Cuban Revolution.

Loraine Morales Pino

HAVANA — Some 157,339 Cubans crossed the border into the United States between Oct. 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022, according to the U.S. Border Patrol — a figure significantly higher than the one recorded during the 1980 Mariel exodus, when a record 125,000 Cubans arrived in the U.S. over a period of seven months.

Migrating has once again become the only way out of the ordeal that life on the island represents.

Cubans of all ages who make the journey set off towards a promise. They prefer the unknown to the grim certainty that the Cuban regime offers them.

Migration from Cuba has been a constant since the 1950s.

In 1956, the largest number of departures was recorded in the colonial and republican periods, with the arrival of 14,953 Cubans in the United States, the historical destination of migratory flows. Since the January 1959 revolution, that indicator has been exceeded 30 times.


The record was established after the elimination of the visa requirement between Cuba and Nicaragua on Nov. 22, 2021. Since then, there has been a migratory flow that uses the Central American corridor as the main channel, although it is not the only destination or route.

Why Cubans emigrate

Four months before the "opening" of Nicaragua, there was the social outbreak of July 11, 2021, an event that marked the contemporary history of Cuba for being the largest popular protest recorded since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

Studies on migration recognize there are many reasons behind this phenomenon. Even so, the analysis of migration out of Cuba has grouped around two schools of thought: the economic and the political reasons.

When analyzing Cuban migration, ideological bias predominates. Researchers usually attribute the greatest weight in the migration decision to economic aspects, the search for an improvement in living conditions and family reunification.

Within Cuba, the main justification used to understand Cuba's impoverishment lies in the U.S. embargo. However, little reference is made to the impact of inefficient economic policies implemented within the country in recent decades, which have as much or more weight than international laws that limit trade relations. For example, the untimely decision of the Cuban government to promote the dollarization of the country.

The still insufficient studies carried out abroad on the Cuban case mostly attribute the main weight to political elements and allude to the excessive control of the regime over the lives of citizens.

Economic and social pressures are stressors of a political nature.

Added to this vision is another set of aspects such as freedom of expression or economic freedom, as well as the most recent laws that limit freedom of thought and association.

In addition, despite the fact that the United States made a commitment in 1980 to grant 20,000 visas per year for family reunification, said immigration agreement has been breached and paused on several occasions during the last four decades. Added to this is the closure of the U.S. embassy in Havana between 2017 and 2022, which has made it difficult to process visas, which now has to be done in third countries.

Hence, economic and social pressures are stressors of a political nature, since they emerge from an authoritarian system that not only rules at the national and local levels, but also seeks to influence the actions and thoughts of individuals, including those who have emigrated.

Finally, there are other aggravating factors, such as access to basic goods and services, which are increasingly limited, in an economic system that doesn’t sustain and is not able to develop due to the inefficient management of its internal resources and outdated infrastructure, just to name a few.

Mexican transit

From November 2021 to the present, the data on migration from Cuba is explicit. By looking at the statistics of refugee applications in Mexico, we can see that Cubans were the second largest nationality, after Honduras, in seeking asylum at the end of May.

But, for most Cubans, Mexico is seen as a transit country, since the main destination is the United States, where there is the largest community of Cubans abroad.

Since Cuba opened up its borders again last December, after prolonged closures due to measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, migration from the island has grown, as confirmed by data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office.

What happens with Cuban migration, which shows alarming figures, is that it is not sufficiently visible by the academy from a critical or less simplistic approach, since it is still pointed out mainly by Cuban civil society and researchers who are part of the diaspora.

In addition, many Latin American activists, politicians and academics who say they are on the left still see Cuba as an example of "emancipation" and prefer to turn their faces away before showing a critical and impartial view of the Cuban context.

\u200bA Cuban migrant shows her Cuban passport

A Cuban migrant shows her Cuban passport

Jessica Patiü±O/LongVisual/ZUMA

Government control

There are two clauses of vital importance in the current Cuban immigration law: Article 9, paragraph 2, which establishes that, after an uninterrupted stay of 24 months abroad, a Cuban citizen loses the right to his residence in Cuba, and; Article 25, paragraph h, which, given its ambivalence, gives the power to the "corresponding authorities" to decide for "other reasons of public interest if a citizen can leave or return to the national territory”.

Conversely, Cuba is not a friendly country or willing to receive citizens from other countries who intend to reside permanently in the national territory. There are very few accepted cases, which must be highly justified; among them, people married to Cuban residents, diplomats, investors or other agents of interest to the Government.

These elements are some glimpses of how migration is used for political purposes and interests and how the Cuban government uses this law to violate the rights of those who might seem “uncomfortable agents”, either by expelling them into forced exile or keeping them in a country that becomes a jail.

Those left behind

Why do we need to focus more on analyzing the case of Cuba when it comes to migration studies?

The contexts of Haiti, Central America and Venezuela are recognized as cases of true expulsions, in which people do not have the capacity or opportunity to build their lives with dignity and are exposed to risks that endanger their lives. But that debate has not yet reached Cuba.

If we simply focus on the numbers, not only is the total number of people who manage to leave the country relevant, but so is the migratory potential, understood as those people who cannot leave even though they want to.

In general, those who have the economic capacity to pay for the trip, leave Cuba. But there are many obstacles that prevent individuals from leaving the country.

The first barrier is obtaining the papers, that is, a visa and passport, which have a high cost for an average citizen, compared to their salary. In addition, after the elimination of the "Wet Feet, Dry Feet" policy, the crossing of the Florida Straits in rustic boats has decreased (although not stopped) given the high probability of repatriation. Recently, the Prensa Latina agency reported that, this year, the U.S. Coast Guard Service has carried out 50 assisted return operations to Cuba by sea, in which 2,390 people were returned.

Those who have the economic capacity to pay for the trip, leave Cuba. But there are many obstacles.

Added to this are the high costs that the land crossing through the Central American corridor entail, the dangers of transit in the presence of organized crime groups, restrictive border policies and other challenges migrants face regardless of their nationality.

But at the end of the day, those who have fewer resources, who suffer the most from the crisis, who don’t have family members abroad, who don’t receive remittances, who are at the mercy of the system, who took the streets to march feeling jaded, they are still trapped in what author Virgilio Piñera defined as "the cursed reality of being surrounded by water."

The migratory flows from Cuba are a desperate cry for help. Those who migrate seek, more than to conquer a new world, to flee from the ordeal of uncertainty and psychological repression of a system that clings to surviving at the expense of its hopeless population.


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