Cuban Immigration Reform & Brain Drain

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*

illustration by Yasser Castellanos

HAVANA TIMES — One of the darker themes of the recent Cuban immigration reform is that referring to professionals.

The Cuban government has argued that it will not permit the emigration of those professionals who are essential for national development, considering this as a measure to protect the country from the “brain drain” policies practiced by developed countries that negatively impact on Third World economies.

Later the Cuban government is saying that professionals who want to emigrate must wait five years — until their replacements are trained? — while whoever “deserts” can’t return for eight years. At least that seems to be what they’re now saying.

Wrapped in anti-imperialist rhetoric and generated from a small island in a deplorable economic situation, this manner of discussing immigration reform has permeated various opinion-shaping media sources.

Many analysts say this is understandable. They have even earned some praise for trying to counter the scheme employed by the United States to entice the desertion of Cuban doctors who are serving in Third World countries.

I believe, however, that the argument presented by Cuban officials is an erroneous proposal wrapped in false rhetoric.

As a preliminary explanation, I think the aforementioned American program is politically impudent, like any other program — for reasons both economic and political — that encourages the relocation of professionals from the South to the North.

I believe that Cuba, like any other country in the world, has the right and is obliged to defend its human resources and the investments it has been made in them. But it cannot do this in just any manner; this is mainly because there are authoritarian and repressive means that are unacceptable, violate inalienable human rights and are ineffective. This is what the Raul Castro government is doing.

First, behind the story of each brain that was “drained” was one that was misused. If Cuba has technical resources that exceed its economic need owing to the hypertrophy of the educational system and the reduction of its bureaucratic apparatus, and if it has a social and economic system that frustrates people’s aspirations, it’s understandable that people will emigrate with their degrees in hand.

They don’t always migrate to economic centers. Cuban professionals occupy highly visible areas among the professorial staffs of Dominican universities, newspapers and clinics. I don’t think you can talk very long about Dominican development without talking nonsense. The same applies to other countries in America and even Africa.

Cuba needs to clearly lay out the rules that it is adopting for its protection. I believe that every professional must fulfill a national social service obligation to pay for their studies or else they should not receive their diploma. Otherwise they could financially reimburse the government if they don’t wish to perform any social service. All of this should be quite clear and subject to contractual agreements.

But no government has the right to prevent a person from leaving the country or returning freely for political, ideological or professional reasons.

Therefore what the Cuban government should do is grow up and join the century in which we live. It needs to realize that every Cuban émigré — especially if this person is a high-level professional — is a veritable mine of knowledge, experiences and relationships; they represent authentic social capital that should be availed upon through positive policies.

It’s time to look at professionals who emigrated as opportunities – not as problems. If they aren’t seen in this manner, if they aren’t dealt with accordingly, Cuban society will continue to lose on all sides.

The problem lies in that the Cuban government doesn’t want to give up its role as a rentier state. It desperately needs cash and is only interested in quick and easy money. It seriously believes that the country is a powerhouse of knowledge with the capacity to export technical resources, and in that lies its future.

However, what we’re actually doing is exporting technical and professional specialties into very special niches: underdeveloped countries with little money or where there are special political ties, as is so much the case with Venezuela.

In this — not like some anti-imperialist battle, as proclaimed in the rhetoric — lies the restrictive clause of immigration reform, which will fall particularly hard on doctors and health care personnel.

The point is that as long as the government can continue to monopolize the contracts for Cuban personnel abroad, it will continue to receive the very significant sums of income it now receives, paying the technicians under contract mere pennies.

To continue this path they need to keep those doctors and professionals in a position of maximum vulnerability, like new type of highly qualified recruits, always with their families as hostages.

The day a Cuban doctor can travel freely, contracted under the conditions dictated by the labor market in each place and can be joined by her/his family without restrictions (here or there), this business will be over, or at least it will be restricted to those people who have no other options.

With it will end the revenues that not only subsidize the chronic economic incapacity of this political class, but also provides income for technocrats, high-level officials and governmental leaders, all who are active in their bourgeois conversion processes. This is the money that makes it possible to enjoy those exclusive and expensive nights — that one can now live in Havana.

Let me give you a real example that I know of personally. This is an individual who I knew back in the old days when I was in high school, and who was able to become a recognized specialist.

At 55 years old, this person was hired by ANTEX (the Antillean Export Corporation) as a professor in a provincial university in South America. But when he arrived, there was no such university position available, so he was sent to a village that lacked electricity to staff a general medical clinic.

In a letter, he wrote telling me that he was tired and didn’t know if he’d be able to withstand two years under such conditions, which were already taking a toll on his health.

But, he wrote, it wasn’t possible to return to Cuba because his family there — grandchildren included — desperately needed his meager income. Alternately, to leave the mission will mean condemning himself to a long separation, which his age wouldn’t allow.

Obviously, this person could easily find employment in any Latin American country — to give an example — and even restricting his services to public health care, he would earn many times over what he now receives, and without having to thank the ANTEX technocrats who selected him for a mission in a remote village.

And if he managed to do the same in the developed North, the situation would be even more beneficial.

It’s really unfortunate how the press, governments and some of the émigré media are slapping themselves on the backs over the announcement of immigration reform, calling it “monumental” or “a qualitative change.”

Actually the reform leaves the issue of immigration in place as an issue of permits and authorizations that an authoritarian state, not subject to any social control whatsoever, can grant or revoke. It can continue practicing the expropriation of citizens’ rights like a political battering ram in the hands of the state. The case of professionals is a very clear example of this.

It’s understandable that the Cuban people are cheerful given this breathe of fresh air in an atmosphere that is otherwise so strained. It’s normal for them to see something positive in this reform, something that promises to improve their lives in some way.

One cannot lose sight of this complex dimension in which the prisoners are joyful over the jailers loosening their shackles. If I were a prisoner — to continue with that metaphor — I would be happy too.

What is really depressing is the joy and clapping of those who haven’t lived in the prison for a long time and who obviously don’t think of returning to it, despite all the sympathies they feel for Raul Castro and his dubious “updating of the model.”

(*) Published originally by


13 thoughts on “Cuban Immigration Reform & Brain Drain

  • Just for your information: over 700 Cubans, mostly doctors, got asylum in Chile.
    Cubans are fleeing everywhere and not just to the US.
    Put things in perspective.
    Source: Más de 700 cubanos han obtenido nacionalidad chilena en los
    últimos años. La mayoría son médicos | Diario de Cuba –

  • You sound like an old parrot with the blockade thing. Dude, how many of these articles written by Cubans living in Cuban do you see mention the blockade? Now, why do you think that is? Think, dammit, think! You self-brainwashed Lefties should be put on a boat and sent back to Cuba with no way back just like the government of Cuba does with its people. I’d give you 3 months before you start crying for your mommy.

  • Poor, poor, gringo. He’s the only one who’s not traveling to Cuba cause everybody else is! Now, if only you’d travel…and STAY! But stay for real: no dollars, no electronic gadgets, no clothes, no nothing and live in the paradise you so adore for a few years. What am I saying? Someone with a mouth like yours wouldn’t be able to stand it from more than 3 months. The bigger they are, the harder they fall, they say. You ought to try it instead of insulting those whose lives and circumstances you know nothing about. You’re the typical gringo leftie, all talk and no action. You should concentrate in fixing the problems of your own country for instead of trying to fix the problems of those you know absolutely nothing about. It’s the likes of you that hurt the Cuban people almost as much as the Castros themselves do.

  • RE: “Protecting human resources” being “a euphanism for keeping the Cuban people imprisoned”.

    The Cuban people are only “imprisoned” by the 50 plus year blockade imposed by the country you are shilling for. Stop the blockade. End the imprisonment.

    RE your little ‘parable’.

    Here’s another one: The US man who abuses the Cuban woman he wants to force into marriage by depriving her of commodities unless she marry him “justifies his brutal oppression by saying , ‘but if I didn’t do that, she would run away! Anyway, I [allow her to have scraps] and its all for her own good.”

    RE: “human resources” being a bureaucratic euphemism for “human beings”.

    You should know. ‘Personnel Departments’ were renamed ‘Human Resources’ in your country long ago. How does it feel being a pioneer in the use of the euphemism – and in every other dehumanising social mechanism one can think of?

    RE: Cuban government freeing its people, recognizing their human rights and respecting their humanity.

    You got the wrong country. Please forward this message to the US with the largest imprisoned population in the world. You were 90 miles off from delivering it to the wrong place.

    RE: “Once upon a time, thousands of people used to emigrate too Cuba.

    Do you mean the Spanish colonisers or the American neo-colonisers? Yeah, well, goodbye to bad rubbish I always say

  • “Protecting human resources” is a euphanism for keeping the Cuban people imprisoned. It’s like the man who beats his wife and keeps her locked inside the house who justifies his brutal oppression by saying , “but if I didn’t do that, she would run away! Anyway, I feed her and its all for her own good.”

    If the Cuban government really wanted to protect their “human resources” a bureaucratic euphanism for “human beings” , then they would free the people, recognize their human rights and respect their humanity.

    Once upon a time, thousands of people used to emigrate too Cuba. Now they flee the island. Think about it.

  • Contemporary migration is predominantly economically motivated – 214 million in 2010 – more than 20 times the population of Cuba

    It seems the leadership of more than Cuba has not produced countries that stop their people from dreaming of leaving.

    And you neglect to mention, no other country in the world is subjected to having its citizens encouraged to emigrate by the US, for political reasons. You must have forgotten.

  • The fact remains, the leadership of the Castros has not produced a country that stops people from dreaming of leaving

  • Excellent thoughts, Kees. I agree whole heartedly. But bureaucracy always looks at things in a less-than-creative way, and this is true everywhere. Let’s see how all this develops.

  • A nice description of one from the privileged class. The vast majority of Americans, of course, tell an entirely different story, especially immigrants whose command of English is less than ideal.

    If “the problem in Cuba is not inducements from the North,” then why are these unique inducements offered only to Cubans whilst your government is deporting others in record numbers? It certainly can’t be helping matters. Just asking.

  • Haroldo,

    I would happily reply to your article in detail but the HT editor has asked me to be more brief in my comments and I must abide. But the task is easy in this case as it’s clear at the beginning where you have gone off the rails.

    You write, “no government has the right to prevent a person from leaving the country or returning freely for political, ideological or professional reasons” and “what the Cuban government should do is grow up and join the century in which we live.”

    That is exactly what the Cuban government has done that your blinkered perspective doe not seem to allow you to see. It has joined the ‘American century’ – the one that prevents US citizens from leaving their country to visit Cuba for political and ideological reasons. When one agrees with the politics and ideology, it makes one blind to the overall situation.

    You refer to the American program to entice Cuban doctors as “impudent” – a curious choice of words – and studiously ignore the overall ‘enticement’ that woos away Cubans who can afford it to emigrate to the US, waiving regulations that apply to everyone else in the world.

    And there’s the US blockade. As hard as you try, these facts on the ground will not go away.

    If you feel Cuba’s government regulations are “authoritarian and repressive”, so do many Americans about the travel restrictions that are imposed on them. If you feel they are “unacceptable”, then focus on the reason whey they are made necessary. I suggest you write about that for a change.

  • My proud Cuban girlfriend is studying Medicine and wants to become the best Cuban docter! She is in her 5th year and working enthusiastically in the local hospital besides her studies. Her dream is to travel to Europa for vacations for a few weeks, and I want to help her with this. If the Cuban government will allow free travel – even with some restrictions – her horizon will be broader and she will be much more happy to fulfill her dream to become a good doctor for their Cuban people!
    i do not know about the United States, but Europe is having millions of people without work, and is not eager to grant permanent residence visa for Cubans. But a limited touristic visit , maybe including a small Medical course, will broaden her life and happiness.
    The Cuban government should not be paranoid: free travel will not lead to a mass exodus, but instead add to the fulfilment of dreams for thousands of Cuban students.
    Besides, I am sure that thousands of European medical and other post- graduates will be more than happy to come to Cuba for a year or more to practice and learn for a small salary, in order to have a good and interesting experience for both sides..on your beautiful island, with their proud and dearing inhabitants..
    i hope that the dreams of thousands of students will become reality, and I am sure that in the end Cuba itself will benefit and receive credits and more respect.

  • From the US military to Wall Street. That explains EVERYTHING.

  • Upon graduation from one of the US military academies, I was commissioned a junior officer and bound to serve at least 5 years before I could resign my commission. I never considered this requirement unfair or burdensome as I had received one of finest college educations available on the planet and would spend these five years serving my country in a field largely of my choosing. Many of my classmates chose to continue to serve past the 5 year minimum because of what they believed to be worthwhile advantages inherent in a military career. I chose to leave the military, but not until I had spent a lot of time weighing my career options. If Cuba offered their professionals the same horizon of hope and opportunity, this brain drain would not be the issue it appears to be. The US military pays very low salaries and in my case, I opted for a job on Wall Street. When the work is rewarding and the pay is enough to live comfortably, brain drain ends. The problem in Cuba is not inducements from the North, it is the lack of opportunity in the South.

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