Caribbean Brain Drain: No Solution in Sight

By Dalia Acosta

The majority of the professionals who emigrate in Cuba studied engineering, medicine, or were teachers before leaving the island (photo by IPS Cuba)

HAVANA, (IPS) – Like other developing regions, the Caribbean is no stranger to brain drain. Besides the impact on local economies, the exodus of university graduates has profound social implications, and there is no solution in sight.

While the prospect of better economic conditions appears to be the predominant motivation for emigrating to industrialized nations, studies conducted by specialists in the field show that in the case of professionals with higher education there are other reasons as well, which have to do with achieving success in their area of work and social recognition.

“It wasn’t easy to make the final decision to leave the country; I had to weigh a lot of important factors,” Elena Gutierrez told IPS. On one hand, she said, she would be “far away from her parents and good friends, and would have to abandon my customs to adopt foreign ones.

“On the other hand, the scales were tipped in favor of greater and better development, both professional and economic; the knowledge that I would continue to grow as a person and that my work would be valued and compensated in proportion to my efforts was an important factor,” the 25-year-old Cuban émigré residing in Paris pointed out in an email interview.

According to Cuban researcher Ángela Casañas, among the causes driving the emigration of Latin American and Caribbean university graduates are “the limited investment in science, and the lack of planning in the training of professionals, which leads to their subsequently being unable to find work.”

Other reasons are the “low salaries, a shortfall in public or private investment in knowledge production, and scarce social recognition for scientific activities,” notes Casañas, of the University of Havana Centre for International Migration Studies (CEMI), in her article “The Emigration of Highly Skilled Professionals from the Perspective of the Sending Country; The Cuban Case.”

“In the case of professionals, there are also conditioning factors that have to do with the role played by their professional realisation, in particular the need to continue to specialise and to access the new technologies and advances in their disciplines,” adds the report, published by the magazine Aldea Mundo in 2007.

“I think that in Cuba professionals in my area, like in many others, will always achieve only partial fulfillment, with many limitations, for the reasons we all know: economic and political reasons, and others that have to do with information and access to competition and the outside world,” explained Rosario Hernández, a 35-year-old industrial engineer living in Lisbon.

According to data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), many Caribbean nations have lost more than 70 percent of their professionals with more than 12 years of completed schooling — one of the highest emigration rates in the world — to the countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which groups most of the world’s industrialized nations.

The proportion reaches especially dramatic levels in countries such as Jamaica and Guyana, which have lost 85 and 89 percent, respectively, of their university-educated labor force. In Cuba, this segment of the population accounts for 10 to 13 percent of all the people that leave the island, according to a study carried out by CEMI from 1995 to 2003.

In his regular column, Reflexiones, former Cuban president Fidel Castro asserted that, as a result of the “United States’ unjust policy towards” Cuba, between 1959 and 2004, 5.16 percent of all professionals who graduated under the socialist system had left the country — a total of more than 41,500 people.

“This relentless plundering of brains in countries of the South dismantles and weakens programs aimed at training human capital, a resource which is needed to rise from the depths of underdevelopment,” wrote Castro.

The cost is particularly high for countries like Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Cuba, where government spending on higher education is significant, and training one college graduate costs an estimated 8,000 to 20,000 U.S. dollars.

But the losses are not only felt at the macroeconomic level. For families, the price of emigrating can be extremely painful.

“I wouldn’t say that my family’s life improved with my moving abroad. Now, like many Cuban families, we’re a broken family, where one of the sons hasn’t been able to visit his mother in almost five years, has missed birthdays and funerals, and wasn’t there for the first years of his nephew’s life and the last days of his father’s life,” 35-year-old Jose Martínez told IPS.

“They’re not better off without me, but they do have more money, they eat and dress a little better, and they can ask for my help to solve small domestic crises that would otherwise be unsolvable,” observed Martinez, who answered IPS’s questions by email from his home in Montreal.

For decades, remittances have been seen as the positive side of South-to-North migration flows, together with the generation of transnational networks of professionals and better training for workers who, if they ever return to their home country, can contribute to local development with their knowledge.

“My staying in another country is the main and almost sole way to ensure a livelihood for my family” in Cuba, said Hernandez.

For her part, Gutierrez said that “Just knowing that my parents have enough money to buy what they need to eat properly puts my mind at ease.”

But remittances increase foreign dependency, foster patterns of consumption that are foreign to local realities, encourage more people to emigrate, and strengthen a culture of emigration that deters national investment and the formation of human capital, says Keith Nurse, a professor at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago.

The boom in remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean during the 2001-2006 period appears to have come to an end with the current economic troubles in the United States. According to a study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), remittances from the U.S. have remained stagnant for the last two years at around US $46 billion dollars.

Regardless of whether the flow of remittances shrinks or grows, the “losses for the countries whose intellectual wealth emigrates will always be greater than any compensation they receive through means other than the attainment of stability for their skilled human resources, based on their own internal development,” Casañas asserted.