A New Cuba Rafter Crisis in the Making

Jorge Duany*  (Café Fuerte)

Cuban rafters intercepted by the US Coast Guard this past August. Photo: USCS
Cuban rafters intercepted by the US Coast Guard this past August. Photo: USCS

HAVANA TIMES — It’s been 20 years since the Cuban rafters crisis. Between August and September 13, 1994, the US Coast Guard detained some 30,879 Cubans in the Strait of Florida. The crisis was resolved (temporarily, at least), when the US and Cuban governments re-established their migratory accords in September of 1994 and May of 1995. One of the main points of these agreements was that all Cuban migrants captured in the high seas were to be repatriated.

The number of Cuban rafters, however, has increased substantially over the past four years. According to the US Coast Guard, the figure of Cubans detained tripled, from 422 in 2010, to 1,357 in 2013. During the 2014 fiscal year, a total of 2,059 Cubans trying to reach the United States on rafts were intercepted in the high seas, and everything seems to indicate the number of Cuban rafters will only increase in coming months.

High Migratory Potential

What is this phenomenon owed to? To begin with, Cuba’s migratory potential is far greater than the 20,000 visas the US government has been offering Cubans on a yearly basis over the past two decades. An indication of how widespread the desire to leave Cuba has become can be found in the number of people who participate in the US visa lottery program (or bombo, as it is popularly known in Cuba).

According to official US sources, 541,500 Cubans participated in the last special bombo just for Cubans,  in 1998. At the current pace, it would have taken 27 years to satisfy the demand at the time. Many people who were unable to obtain visas evidently left the country illegally.

Secondly, we must consider Cuba’s persistent economic difficulties. Despite the economic reforms undertaken by Raul Castro’s government, living conditions continue to be very precarious for the majority of the island’s population. Low salaries, growing unemployment and underemployment, rising prices and the deterioration of public services continue to plague the Cuban economy.

The lack of productive employment opportunities has led an entire generation of young Cubans, raised during the economic crisis that began in 1989, to seek the realization of their professional and personal aspirations abroad. Many set off on rafts, small vessels or anything that floats in the hopes of reaching the Promised Land, the United States or “la Yuma”, as the country is affectionately referred to in Cuba.

Thirdly, current US policy towards Cuban migrants, particularly the Cuban Adjustment Act, known as the “wet foot / dry foot” law, encourages illegal immigration from Cuba. This law, approved in 1966, guarantees that the majority of Cubans who arrive in the United States are legally admitted into the country and put on a fast track to become permanent residents. Given the dangers and unpredictability of travelling by sea to the Strait of Florida, more and more Cubans are opting to travel to Mexico or Central America in order to cross the US land border.

An Unstoppable Wave of Immigrants

We are witnessing a growing exodus of Cubans who are leaving the country through means both authorized by the US government and not.

From 1994 to 2013, the largest wave of immigrants since the beginning of the Cuban revolution was registered (a total of 563,740 Cubans were legally admitted into the United States). Owing to the stagnation of the Cuban economy and the lack of significant political reforms, it is reasonable to assume this trend will continue, and that the number of Cubans seeking to move to the United States in coming years will in fact increase.

The accumulation of frustrated attempts at emigrating and the strong desire for family reunification will likely keep Cuba’s migratory rate high. This situation could lead to a new rafters crisis in the near future.


563,740 Cubans were legally admitted into the United States between 1994 and 2013

134,758 arrived in the United States legally between 2005 and 2014

22,567 arrived from neighboring countries to request asylum in the 2014 fiscal year

91,122 of them did so via the Mexican border

2,059 Cubans were intercepted in the Strait of Florida in 2014

815 arrived in south Florida by sea in 2014

(*) Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Cuban Studies (CRI) of the Florida International University. He is a renowned expert on US Cuban immigration. This article was first published by El Nuevo Dia and republished by Café Fuerte with the author’s consent.

14 thoughts on “A New Cuba Rafter Crisis in the Making

  • November 23, 2014 at 11:11 am

    what a joke for Mr. Goodrich to criticize Griffin for not responding!
    This from the great librarian who poses as an intellectual superior.
    Incidentally Mr. Goodrich, has it occurred to you that your constant praise of Chomsky detracts from his image in the minds of others?

  • November 23, 2014 at 11:06 am

    Deo Gracias

  • November 20, 2014 at 10:24 am

    Thank you. Those are significant details to add to the analysis.

    It has been estimated that by 2030, 30% of the Cuban population will be over 60 years old. The population is already shrinking below 11 million, and the decline is increasing each year.

    Meanwhile, Cuban exiles in the US are having families and their population is growing. At some point, there could be more Cubans outside the island than on it!

    However, I expect the regime to collapse before it reaches that point. The younger Cuban exiles will begin to return in large numbers, rejuvenating the nation. But they will bring with them the attitudes and values they learned in the US.

    It is a huge historical irony that Fidel Castro, driven as he was by his intense anti-American prejudice, contrived to install a political system which destroyed the Cuban nation and it that it will be the Cuban-exiles returning from the US who will rebuild it.

  • November 20, 2014 at 12:42 am

    Excellent rebuttal. Two tidbits. According to Cuba’s very own Economy Czar Marino Murillo, in just more than 13 years , Cuba will experience more deaths than births. This means the population will decline even without subtracting for outmigration. The other issue not reflected in the raw data is Cuba’s best and brightest are the ones most likely to leave Cuba. Mexico loses a far lower percentage of their best-prepared professionals because of the opportunities that exist for them in-country. The impact of losing these professionals on the Cuban economy is worse than initially thought. It also fuels the growing racial tensions and economic divide that is due to more white Cubans have family abroad that can send remittances than black Cubans who are forced to live only off incomes generated in-country.

  • November 19, 2014 at 10:54 am

    John, you have no idea what is required of Cubans wishing to emigrate to the US. It is no more difficult than what is required of Mexicans or even Canadians for that matter. The costs are the same, however for a Cuban these costs are effectively higher. Blame the Castros for that. You seem to fail to mention how many and how often the Soviet Union “invaded” sovereign countries to promote their failed economic empire as well. Perhaps that is why we call it a Cold “War”? Finally, while your comments regarding the desire of many Caribbean and Latin Americans to migrate to the US is true, what you fail to acknowledge is the much higher number of Cuban doctors, lawyers, engineers and other well-educated Cubans who choose to leave Cuba in comparison to like-educated professionals from these other countries. Poor uneducated people leaving abject poverty and violence is one thing, but when a surgeon is willing to risk his life to leave Cuba, what does that say?

  • November 19, 2014 at 10:22 am

    Dear emagicmtman & John,

    Can you please post a link to back up your claim that 75,000 Jamaicans go to the US annually? I searched and could only find much smaller figures for Jamaican migration.

    This source (http://northamericanimmigration.org/169-jamaican-immigration.html ) states that between 1992 and 2002, an average of 16,000 Jamaicans migrated to the US annually. During individual years, the numbers may rise or fall, but many migrants often return to Jamaica after making a nest egg of cash. Many Jamaicans regularly go back and forth each year as migrant labourers.

    By comparison, the Cuban migrants arrive and stay. Some return for visits. Very, very few return to Cuba to live.

    According to this source (https://www.iom.int/cms/en/sites/iom/home/where-we-work/americas/central-and-north-america-and-th/jamaica.html) the net migration rate from Jamaica from 2010 to 2015 was -5.8 per 1000 (or -0.58%) Note that this is the total immigration rate from Jamaica to all other countries, the US, UK & Canada being the 3 top destinations.

    Note also, I was comparing the total migration of Cubans to the US to the illegal migrations from Mexico & Central America, which was the comparison made by “emagicmtman”.

    So let’s do the math, shall we?

    First, the total accumulated populations:

    Population of Mexico: 122 million
    Total number of illegal Mexican immigrants in the US: 7.3 million.
    As a percentage of the Mexican population: 5.98%

    Population of Cuba: 11 million
    Total number of Cuban immigrants in the US: 1.785 million.
    As a percentage of the Cuban population: 16.23%

    Secondly, let’s look at annual migrations:

    Average annual migration from Mexico to US from 1986 to 2012: 213,000/yr.

    As a percentage of the Mexican population: 0.17%.

    Average annual migration from Cuba to US from 1986 to 2012: 25,641/yr.

    As a percentage of the Cuban population: 2.3%.

    My source:


    When one adds in the figures from the other Central American countries, the migrations as a percentage of population decreases even further. Therefore, my statement in the previous comment above was correct.

    My point is focused on the demographics and the effects on the US & Cuba. The US can easily absorb the rate of Cuban migration. Illegal migration from Mexico has become a hot political issue, and the volume is perhaps a strain on social services resources in the US, but not impossible to manage. It’s interesting to note that migration of Mexican nationals from the US back to Mexica is also quite large. It seems to swing with economic fortunes.

    The effect of the steady and growing migration of Cubans out of Cuba could soon present a catastrophic demographic crisis for Cuba. The population of Cuba is one of the most rapidly aging in the world. Cubans of child bearing age are leaving in droves. Unless the Cuban gov’t can persuade Cubans to stay and have children, the population will fall into a rapid decline within 20 years. There will be few young people left to work, to look after the elderly, or to guard the regime.

    You may draw different conclusions from the data I provided, which reflect your political perspectives. That’s fine. There are different ways to look at the social & political effects and causes of migration.

    If you can dispute the figures I presented, please do so by providing links. If you can’t dispute the figures and your responses consist only of personal insults or dismissals of my sources as “CIA propaganda” please don’t waste your time or HT’s bandwidth.

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