Since January of this year ending, 2.4% of the 11.1 million inhabitants of the island of Cuba have emigrated to the United States
HAVANA TIMES – There have been several waves of migration, but never before have so many Cubans arrived in the United States in a single year as in 2022.
As of November, they numbered some 270,000, according to accumulated data from US customs and the coast guard, which account for arrivals by land and sea respectively, reports the BBC.
In other words, since January 2.4% of the 11.1 million inhabitants of Cuba have emigrated to the United States, according to the latest data from 2022.
This migratory wave exceeds the one unleashed after the arrival of Fidel Castro to power (250,000 expatriates between 1959 and 1962), the Mariel exodus of 1980 (some 125,000), the “Freedom Flights” that relocated some 300,000 Cubans between 1965 and 1973, and the rafter crisis of 1994 (more than 30,000).
The vast majority of Cubans who are emigrating to the United States in 2022 do so illegally and risking their lives on dangerous journeys.
The most common is to fly to Nicaragua, where they do not need a visa, and guided by mafias —each journey costs between $8,000 and $15,000— to travel thousands of kilometers in hiding through Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico until they set foot on US soil.
There is also the less expensive but even more risky option of trying to reach the Florida coast by boat.Their plans sometimes fail and many end up dead or deported.
So why are so many Cubans risking their lives to get to the US?
Scarcity and no opportunities
Jobs in Cuba are generally poorly paid and of low quality.
Eight out of ten Cubans who emigrate to the US are between the ages of 15 and 59, that is, the vast majority are of working age.
But they don’t want to do it in Cuba, where in a state job the average salary is around $22 a month at the real exchange rate and the private sector is limited to a restricted group of activities and trades.
[Another cause is that young Cubans who want to have children do not want to do so under the conditions on the island, opting for starting their family upon settling abroad.]
Sociologist Elaine Acosta, from Florida International University, notes that the current Cuban migratory wave is the product of “the structural crisis and the exhaustion of a political and socioeconomic model that does not offer viable alternatives to sustain life on the island.”
“Poverty and social and territorial inequalities have increased significantly, along with a progressive deterioration of social security and assistance,” she explained to BBC Mundo.
Cuba has been in crisis for decades, but the pandemic (which caused a drop in tourism, a key sector), the tightening of the US embargo and a failed monetary and wage reform, among other factors, ended up sinking its economy.
Today the government is unable to pay its creditors, so supplies from abroad are limited, something especially serious in a country that imports between 60 and 70% of the food it consumes.
In an attempt to raise foreign currency, the State, which monopolizes retail trade in the country, sells food and basic products in dollars, a currency that only part of the population has access to.
This gave new impetus to the illicit market on the street, but it did not solve the problem of scarcity. Getting chicken, bread, rice, shampoo, detergent, or toothpaste can require lines that last several hours starting at dawn or even the night before.
Likewise, for today’s young people, the prospects for the situation changing in the future are practically nil, so their dreams of professional success and a full life involve emigrating.
“As Joan Manuel Serrat said about rural Spain at the time of Franco, today’s young Cubans do not expect this land to give them tomorrow what it did not give them yesterday,” sums up Juan Carlos Albizu-Campos, a professor at the Center for Studies of the Cuban Economy at the University of Havana.
Lack of freedom
On July 11, 2021, tens of thousands of Cubans took to the streets to demand freedom and better living conditions, in a hitherto unprecedented day of protests.
The authorities responded in the following days and months with mass arrests and summary trials. More than 1,500 people, the majority young, were arrested and at least 670 remain in jail today, according to the NGO Cubalex.
It has also become commonplace to summon for questioning at police stations citizens who openly criticize the one-party system that has prevailed for more than six decades.
Cuban journalist, writer and activist Monica Baro maintains that the lack of freedom is an important factor —and often underestimated in the media— among those who push Cubans into exile.
“After July 11, 2021, many people who had participated in the demonstrations emigrated, scared by the level of repression,” she says.
Baro further explains that, although a large part of the protesters and people who supported the marches were not arrested in the first months, “many were scared and feared that at some point they would be identified in a video and imprisoned.”
Visa waiver to Nicaragua
The Cuban passport is one of the most restricted in the world and only gives access to a small number of countries freely, that is, without the need for long and complex visa procedures.
One of them is Nicaragua, since in November 2021 the governments of Daniel Ortega and Miguel Díaz-Canel signed an agreement to allow Cubans to freely enter the Central American country as tourists.
This became the main gateway to the mainland for those trying to reach the United States from the Island.
Some experts believe that the agreement with Nicaragua was an intentional maneuver by the Cuban government to provide an escape valve for the population and alleviate internal pressures at a time of strong social discontent due to scarcity and repression.
“The Cuban government continues to use migration politically in an instrumental way, turning it into a tool to defuse internal pressure and discontent, as well as a negotiation mechanism with governments in the region,” says sociologist Elaine Acosta.
Albizu-Campos, for her part, downplays the visa exemption agreement.
“It’s just one more facilitating factor: what it does is make mobility possible through a corridor, but the exodus would have occurred with or without an agreement between Cuba and Nicaragua,” she maintains.
In any case, it is significant that the numbers of Cuban migrants arriving at the border with the United States has skyrocketed since the opening of this new escape route.
And now in the US
Although in 2022 many Cubans also emigrated to Europe —especially from the circle of artists and intellectuals in Havana— and to other parts of Latin America and the world, the truth is that the vast majority went to the United States, for several reasons.
The first and fundamental is the assistance that Cuban families already living in the US —a community of more than 1.3 million people— offer their relatives who decide to leave the Island.
In addition, it is generally the relatives in the US who finance the illegal journey from Cuba, totally unaffordable for most inhabitants of the island.
On the other hand, there are the job opportunities that the US offers to migrants, and especially to Cubans.
It is an open secret that, unlike in Europe, in Miami and other cities in the United States it is relatively easy to work illegally in a restaurant, a store or any other business.
This, together with state aid in food and health, allows newcomers to guarantee their livelihood.
In addition, the Cuban Adjustment Law grants migrants from Cuba preferential treatment compared to those from other countries. If they spend a year and a day in the country, they can start processing their permanent residency and in a few years they can become citizens.
“The privileges that Cuban migrants enjoy, both in terms of preferential admission and assistance upon arrival, have created incentives for them to leave Cuba for the United States,” William LeoGrande, a professor at the American University in Washington D.C. and an expert on Cuba-US relations told BBC Mundo.