The largest mass emigration in Cuba’s history continues

Economic decline has caused 180,000 people to flee the island in the last year

A Cuban stands with his makeshift raft on a beach near Havana.
A Cuban stands with his makeshift raft on a beach near Havana.ADALBERTO ROQUE (AFP)

Cuba’s latest migration crisis is breaking records. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reports that in the last 11 months, nearly 180,000 Cubans crossed the US-Mexico border, and another 8,000 tried to make it to the United States by sea. In addition, the US Coast Guard reports that it intercepted 5,421 Cuban rafters trying to cross the Florida Straits since October 2021, and about 3,000 made it to US shores, numbers that exceed the total number of rafters detained in the last five years. The current Cuban exodus is unprecedented and far surpasses previous mass emigrations like the 1980 Mariel boatlift (125,000 people) and the 1994 Cuban rafter crisis (35,000 people).

The Cuban sociologists and economists we interviewed all agree that the hemorrhaging will not be stanched anytime soon and may even worsen due to deteriorating living conditions and economic hardship in Cuba. They believe that the current crisis is structural and that it will take years of investment, financial aid and radical reforms for the country to recover, measures that the Cuban government may be reluctant to take.

Cuban and US news outlets publish daily reports of deportations, shipwrecks, human trafficking operations and harrowing accounts of the land and sea journeys made by these Cuban emigrants. Hundreds have been killed by the mafias that control illegal migration in Central America and Mexico, while others have drowned at sea or crossing the Rio Grande. But this hasn’t deterred the desperate people who continue to leave Cuba.

The US Embassy in Cuba recently announced that the US is increasing patrols and enforcement by land, air and sea, as well as a new “interagency task force responsible for deterring, preventing, and responding to illegal maritime migration under Operation Vigilant Sentry. The primary objectives of the task force are to prevent loss of life at sea and to deter and dissuade maritime migration using Department of Homeland Security forces.”

Cuban television reporters recently interviewed several rafters deported from the US, including a young woman with a small child, who told how they nearly died at sea. They vowed not to try and emigrate illegally again, sending a clear message of deterrence to viewers. But it is unlikely that this will resonate with the desperate, exhausted and disillusioned Cuban people.

The crisis led Cuba and the US to convene a “technical meeting” in Havana between the Cuban Border Guard and the US Coast Guard to “increase bilateral cooperation” in combatting irregular migration, human and drug trafficking, as well as maritime search and rescue.

The official Cuban communiqué about the meeting said it was fruitful and conducted “in a respectful and professional atmosphere… Both delegations noted the usefulness of these meetings and the importance of increased cooperation in this area,” and agreed to hold more technical meetings in the future. In April, Cuba and the US resumed bilateral talks on migration issues, the first high-level discussions since US President Joe Biden was elected. The meetings had been suspended during the Trump administration, which reversed the Obama-initiated rapprochement between the two countries.

Immigration has always been a key issue in the turbulent US-Cuba bilateral relationship. Over the last 60 years, several mass emigrations have ratcheted up tensions between the two nations. Cuba has used emigration as an escape valve during times of economic and political crisis, and also to pressure the US. But the magnitude of the current exodus is unprecedented, and led to historic anti-government protests on July 11, 2021. That date established a before-and-after point in time for Cuba, and the emigration numbers speak for themselves.

In fiscal year 2020 (year ending on September 30), 14,000 Cubans illegally entered the US across the Mexican border. In FY 2021, this number increased to 39,300. As of August 2022, almost 180,000 migrants have entered the US across its southern border. If the current pace continues, US officials say FY 2022 could close with a record 200,000 irregular Cuban migrants. The US Coast Guard data on Cuban rafters is equally alarming. The number of Cubans intercepted at sea bounced around for years (1,468 in 2017; 259 in 2018; 313 in 2019; 49 in 2020; and 838 in 2021), but in the first 11 months of the current fiscal year, US officials picked up 5,421 Cubans at sea.

This is undoubtedly the most severe migration crisis since the Cuban Revolution triumphed in 1959. The problems in Cuba that are driving the exodus are equally severe and difficult to solve. There seems no end in sight for the widespread exhaustion and desperation of the Cuban people caused by economic hardship, draconian energy blackouts, runaway inflation, medicine and basic necessity shortages, and deteriorating health care services. Many young people feel that leaving is their only option for a better life, a scenario that will surely mortgage the country’s future.

The Biden administration does not want more irregular Cuban emigrants, and has recently launched several initiatives to resurrect the family reunification program and restore the consular services that Trump dismantled. But Cuban officials say that these measures are inadequate and accuse Washington of accelerating the flow of illegal emigrants by failing to comply with the bilateral agreement stipulating the granting of 20,000 visas annually to Cuban citizens. Cuba also says that the US has not complied with the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans to obtain permanent residency a year and a day after entering the country, even if they entered illegally. Lastly, Cuba continues to blame US economic sanctions for all its problems. While both governments remain mired in long-running disputes, Cubans continue to suffer and the exodus intensifies.

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