Cuba: Migrants, Crises and Transnationalism

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

CUBANOSPASOC6 Alvaro Sanchez
Photo: A. Sanchez/

HAVANA TIMES — As the days pass, the thousands of Cubans stranded in Costa Rica as refugees and the hundreds who have gathered, destitute, in small impoverished towns along Panama’s pacific coast cease to make headlines in Cuba.

The island’s official press mentions the situation only in passing, as a distant phenomenon, as, and I quote Cubadebate, “a complex migratory situation that has arisen in that country [Costa Rica], brought about by how alluring the riches of the north prove for the poor of the south and by the specific provisions that benefit Cuban migrants in the United Sates.”

In the meantime, the international press seems to have grown tired of what was once the attractive media spectacle of Cubans being clubbed by the Nicaraguan police. What we are seeing today is a closed playing field, in which each of the countries involved has taken a stance that neutralizes the potential decisions others could make and forces Costa Rica to digest a situation which stands as the most disastrous migratory crisis of its history.

The complexity of the issue, however, isn’t to be found in its humanitarian dimension. Ultimately, I am certain that Cubans will find a way to reach the United States or settle somewhere in Central America where they can start a new life. It’s possible, and desirable, that they will come to the end of the journey before the year ends. They are certainly entitled to it.

[Editors’s Note: we also suggestPossible Solution to Allow the 8,000 Cubans in Costa Rica to Reach the USA“, published after this article by Haroldo Dilla]

The complexity of the situation stems from the fact the issue isn’t being debated and, consequently, that it is left in the hands of the government, which interprets and describes the matter as a “complex migratory situation,” when, in fact, what we are dealing with is a structural crisis facing Cuban society and with morbid situations that waste away this society and make it unviable as a nation.

It’s true that no objective balance of Cuba’s migratory situation can place this situation outside the context of US-Cuba bilateral conflicts, or neglect the responsibility of the US government in this situation. But to leave matters there not only involves a politically skewed analysis but also a gesture of intellectual dishonesty.

The Cuban state has used its migrants as an instrument of political blackmail – at times restricting migration, at times authorizing it and at times instigating it through mass exodus like the ones witnessed in 1980 and 1994. For all such ends, it has never been hesitant to stage farcical encounters, such as the nation’s meetings with representatives of the émigré community, to sink tow-boats full of helpless individuals (including children) or to charge the steepest consular fees in the world.

What took place on the Costa Rica – Nicaragua border is another example of how this government uses its migrants: the Cuban government has instigated a migratory crisis, coordinated with an allied government (Nicaragua) and has consented to having its citizens mistreated in unjustified acts of violence. Then, it has turned its back on the situation in all senses, bombastically proclaiming that it would be willing to allow those migrants who have a legal migratory status and wish to return to the island to come back to Cuba. That is to say, no one.

On the other hand, Cuban emigration cannot be explained solely on the basis of legal provisions such as the Cuban Adjustment Act, as no opportunity, no matter how attractive, explains the frankly suicidal nature of the itineraries in question, where more than one migrant has lost their life. It is also untrue that the only reason to emigrate is of an economic nature – no migratory phenomenon operates that way – and, in Cuba, the economy and politics merge into one another in an excessively affectionate embrace.

People in Cuba emigrate because they have no prospects in a country with a devastated economy, an authoritarian system of government and highly limited options in terms of personal realization. Cubans not only live poorly, they can’t complain about it and are unable to picture a brighter future. They are also terribly bored.

One of the most dangerous aspects of the current situation is the scant attention devoted the matter by those who – as academics or political activists – should have learned the significance of the increasingly evident transnational nature of our society. Next to no one has said anything on the matter.

A case in point is the tardy and inadequate analysis carried out by the critical intellectuals who are part of the Cuba Posible (“Possible Cuba,” CP) project. In this connection, CP issued one of its familiar dossiers (, with a suggestive introduction which read as follows: “We must urgently find an answer to the dramatic crisis these people and their relatives are facing. In addition, Cuba and the United States must urgently implement multifaceted (and short-term) measures and design a (long-term) strategy to lay the foundations of a new situation that will make scenarios such as this one impossible.” The dossier sought the opinion of several individuals. I will refer to those of three renowned intellectuals: Lenier Gonzalez, Roberto Veiga and Pavel Vidal.

With the exception of Lenier Gonazalez, CP vice-chair, who described the crisis as a structural problem (with questionable arguments, perhaps, but also with a laudable multifaceted approach that did not neglect the issue of democracy), the rest of the people approached offered a frankly precarious and unilateral analysis.

Economist Pavel Vidal, for instance, attributed emigration to the economic crisis and suggested the solution was to be found in the broadening of the private sector in Cuba. This way, he neglected the fact that the bourgeoning of Cuban emigration to its current, unsustainable levels has been co-extensive with the expansion of the private sector. This is so, quite simply, because the expansion of the private sector does not take place as a liberalizing addition to the nation’s economy but as a restructuring process that leaves people out, precisely the losers who economists, dazzled by the market, consider morally acceptable collateral damage.

Lastly, this neglects the fact that Cubans were emigrating long before the crisis existed and even at times of economic growth and rising consumption, as the Mariel exodus illustrated. To place migration and the economy in a strictly linear relationship is a regrettable vulgarization of the situation.

The most curious line of argument, however was probably that followed by CP chair Roberto Veiga, who feels the problem would go away with the elimination of the blockade/embargo and the establishment of a “quick lane” that would grant Cuba’s Council of Ministers discretional powers, to make decisions without the consent of “parliament.”

Veiga writes as though Cuba was not already a country governed through decrees and as though that form of authoritarianism wasn’t one of the reasons behind the domestic crisis which hurls Cubans across the planet, as though it were perfectly reasonable that an institution that speaks of building a better Cuba should suggest giving an authoritarian government greater authority.

When I see such texts, I grow increasingly convinced of the acquiescence of the island’s intellectuals (no matter how talented) in the face of issues which, like this one, force us to direct our criticisms inward. And it is doubly regrettable, because this debate involves that other part of Cuban society that does not reside on the island and which CP does not call upon. Suffice it to recall the volume published by FIU University three years ago.

The one positive aspect of this regrettable crisis is that it forces us to regard Cuban society from a transnational perspective, that is to say, as a society that transcends the island’s boundaries and is developing intense economic, cultural and political ties in different corners of the planet. If we refuse to regard Cuba this way, we will fail to understand what is taking place and what will take place in a future replete with challenges. One of these challenges is how to take full advantage of the transnational nature of a country that ought to belong to everyone.

12 thoughts on “Cuba: Migrants, Crises and Transnationalism

  • I understand the Trading with the Enemy, Torrecelli, and Helms-Burton Acts perfectly. It is you that misunderstand my comment. I take partial blame as my comment is somewhat cryptic. Socialist Cuba WITHOUT the embargo would have ‘disappeared’ the same way the Soviet Union crumbled. In its place would likely have been a oligarchial capitalist economy as exists in Russia today. Geography has less to do with the Castros failure than you suggest. The inability to use US dollars has had a far greater impact. The cost to import a product adds only marginal cost to Cuban imports. South Africa, located at the bottom of the world has probably the highest import costs in the world. Australia is not far behind. But both countries also have expensive exports. The costs offset. Cuba, on the other hand, produces relatively little for export. As a result, those import costs have a greater but still marginal effect. What you parroted is Castro propaganda but it makes no sense in the real world.

  • It really seems like you have a very superficial understanding of the situation. Do you really think that the Cuba of the ’90’s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, represents what “no embargo” would look like? That makes no sense. I guess you don’t understand what the embargo actually does. Companies who do business with Cuba are prohibited from any business in the US, a very strong deterrent: trade with Cuba, the huge US market is closed to you. It makes everything so much more expensive, being shipped from countries so distant from them who are willing to trade with them- a huge drag on any economy. Our Cuban immigration policy, the “wet/dry foot”, provides great incentive for economic refugees from Cuba to risk their lives while refugees from any other Latin American country, with the same or greater poverty, don’t get treated equally. In much of Central America, 50%, 60% or higher of their populations live below the poverty line. For Cuba to be able to provide the services that they do for their entire populations while constrained by the embargo, they’re doing pretty well. Whereas, in our country, the right wing is trying to take away healthcare from our citizens, defund social services provided the poor, make public education less comprehensive and more expensive, while making it harder to vote them out of office. A shining example of capitalist democracy.

  • You are kidding yourself. The Castros don’t want Cubans to prosper. On the contrary, socialism in Cuba requires that the State (insert Castros here) remain in control. Economically independent Cubans are impossible to control.

  • Cuba without the embargo? That’s easy. Do you remember the Soviet Union? The embargo has been the “whipping boy” for the Castros to blame all of it’s problems on. You obviously believe it. Without the embargo as an excuse, and moreover, without the Wet foot/Dry foot safety valve, Cuba would have imploded like the Soviet Union or gone the way of China years ago.

  • “More of a challenge” is rather dramatically understated and disingenuous- in reality, that opportunity is minuscule for 98% of US residents. Wake up- snap out of your fantasy- the rich keep getting uber-richer while the rest remain economically stagnant or in decline. Do you not think all the other Central Americans attempting to enter the US are fleeing their own countries because they are unable to “dream” of a better life in their own country? The big difference is Cubans have a much greater incentive to attempt dangerous raft trips due to the promise of citizenship with our “wet foot- dry foot” policy. We are a major cause of those tragedies.
    I’m very happy your one friend who found success here. It’s delusional to think that will happen for those able to come to this country. Much better would be for us to take the 50 yr. old stick out of our behinds and attempt to improve their economy so we’re actually helping everyday Cubans in their own country. I hope our President goes further in this endeavor.

  • Yes, here the poor, immigrants or citizens, can dream of winning the lottery (with extremely poor chances) while they starve on minimum wage if they’re lucky- no ration coupons, no free healthcare or education opportunities (granted, in Cuba social services have seriously declined at the hands of the economic war waged for 55 years by the greatest economic power against a small independent country. Sweet dreams of money rather than sufficient food for the family.

  • Social mobility in the US is indeed becoming more of a challenge I grant you. But wherease you Have little chance to be allowed to immigrate to Denmark, a small and homogenous society with a population the size of New Jersey ( I think), you will have a much better opportunity to be allowed into the U.S.

    My comment stands. it’s an actual success story. Besides success in Denmark is a relative thing. Love their women though!!

  • Well said. I would rather be poor in the United States than anywhere else. When I arrived in the U.S. I did not have a penny. All this talk of exploitation is designed to lead people to give up personal freedom.

  • …More to Moses’ point. In the U.S. you still have opportunity. Not everyone has the drive and ambition but to succeed, but for those that do the opportunity is there. Opportunity is that magic ingredient that’s missing in Cuba and found in abundance here. Case in point is a distant cousin of my wife who arrived “legally” two years ago to reunite with his family in Miami. Within the month he had a drivers license, a warehouse job and was attending night school, studying commercial refrigeration. Two years later he and a friend have a small business with 4 trucks and commercial clients throughout Miami. He works like a dog, but he is successful, in fact he is doing better than I am!! It’s all about opportunity, and doing something with it when you find it.

  • Ryan, here’s the difference between a poor Cuban in Miami and the same poor Cuban in Havana. In Miami this Cuban can DREAM of the possibility of winning the lottery, or answering all the tough questions on a national game show, or winning an audition for an acting role in a Hollywood blockbuster. All far-fetched possibilities you say? Of course but that’s why they are dreams. In Cuba no such dreams are even remotely possible. In fact, they’re illegal. That’s the point. Castro has taken away people’s dreams. Without hopes and dreams, no society can do more than survive.

  • In theory, on paper, people in the US have more freedom. In reality, how much opportunity do the lower classes have to advance their situation if they don’t have any start-up funds? Same question for the poor Cubans who come here looking for opportunity. They can maybe get a job washing dishes for minimum wage, or less if they’re undocumented and taken advantage of by vulture employers. “America, the land of opportunity” for the wealthy to exploit the underclass.

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