December 8, 2022
Glenda Boza

The New Migratory Wave in Cuba: Destinations, Causes, Figures and Perspectives

A man without a leg, a woman over 80 years old, a couple with a nine-month-old child, a young man with a motor disability—they are all among the Cubans who, in recent months, have arrived at the southern border of the United States of America. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Customs and Border Protection, over 224,000 Cubans crossed since the current fiscal year began in October 2021. 224,000 in a year!

The figure exceeds the largest migratory waves that have occurred since 1959 combined: the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 and the rafter crisis in 1994. Most of these Cubans—or a good part, because there are no exact figures—had to cross Central America using illegal routes and running all kinds of risks. However, the U.S. is not the only destination that Cubans seek out. As the song Catalejo (Spyglass) by the musical group Buena Fé says: “Tokyo, Barcelona, and Moscow, it’s all the same to them.”

The Gateway: Nicaragua

Cuba’s most recent migratory wave coincided with the reopening of international airports after the most difficult moments of the COVID-19 pandemic on the island, and the waiver of visas for Cubans traveling to Nicaragua.

At the end of November 2021, Daniel Ortega’s government announced it would eliminate visa requirements for Cubans traveling to its territory. Many considered this an opportunity to emigrate, crossing through Central America to the Mexican-U.S. border. For some, it was a gesture of complicity between Cuba’s government and its Nicaraguan allies. They suspected that it could act as an “escape valve” in the face of the deep economic, political, and social crisis in the country.

Given the growing demand for flights between the two countries, several airlines and tour operators began to take advantage and charge exorbitant prices for tickets. These could include up to three stops. In most cases, the tickets were bought by Cubans living abroad willing to pay large sums of money to be reunited with their relatives. For example, before the pandemic, a round trip ticket between Havana and Managua could cost between $500 and $800 USD. After the visa requirement was eliminated, and knowing that the return ticket would be lost, prices skyrocketed to $4,000 and $5,000 USD. The price increase is a result of the commissions charged by intermediaries.

There are varied testimonies about the journey to the United States: links with coyotes in Nicaragua, night transfers, paying off police at checkpoints, transportation by air, water, land and even on horses, document forgery, detention in migrant centers, accidents, rapes, robberies, kidnappings, and even death (so far, 108 Cubans). These are all situations experienced by those who choose this migratory route. The average price of the trip is calculated at more than $10,000 dollars according to the testimony of several Cubans who have achieved the “American Dream.” In addition to paying the ticket, the journey through Nicaragua, Honduras or El Salvador, Guatemala, and finally Mexico can cost up to $7,000 dollars per person despite the risk of deportation.

However, in many cases it was not enough to have the necessary money and a ticket to Managua in hand. In February and March of 2022, several Cubans “planted” themselves outside of the Costa Rican and Panamanian embassies in Havana in protest of the imposition, without prior notice, of transit visa requirements. This measure affected many who already had tickets purchased and they either had to cancel or reschedule their plans.

Destination: United States

The U.S. is the logical, main destination for Cubans who wish to emigrate. What Cuban does not have a relative, friend, or acquaintance there? The largest Cuban community outside of the island, estimated at two million individuals, is found in the United States. That means the country offers greater support networks in addition to the possibility of applying for the Cuban Adjustment Act (1966), which allows Cubans’ migratory status to be regularized far more quickly, an “benefit” that puts Cubans better off compared to other immigrants.

According to available statistics, from 1860 to 2019, Cuba generated migratory waves of more than 1,600,000 people to the United States. Approximately 28% of that figured occurred between 2010 and 2019. A study by French journalist Salim Lamrani, “Cuban emigration to the United States from 1860 to 2019: a statical and comparative analysis,” revealed that the 479,818 Cubans who emigrated in the second decade of the 21st century (from 2010 to 2019) represent 4.2% of the entire Cuban population in those years (a figure of 11 million that has not changed since 1997).

In the current wave of migration to the U.S., not all Cubans have been able to make the route through Central America. Despite the removal in 2014 of the Wet Foot Dry Foot policy, there are still thousands who try to reach Florida’s shores by sea and end up deported. Between October of 2021 and September of 2022, over 6,182 Cuban rafters were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard trying to reach U.S. territory.

Most of those who have arrived at the southern U.S. border have applied for political asylum. Despite leaving with a leg shackle and a court appearance date, they say they feel free, alluding to the limitations in terms of rights and the dissident repression experienced on the island, actions that have increased since the protests on July 11, 2021.

However, the Cuban government accuses the Biden administration for the new wave; for maintaining preferential policies that encourages Cuban migration; for failing to comply with prior agreements that establish granting 20,000 annual visas; for not carrying out immigration procedures at the embassy in Havana; and for sustaining economic sanctions that hinder the development of the country.

After the migration talks between the two countries last May, the U.S. government announced a series of measures that included reopening some consular services at its embassy in Cuba, but most of the procedures continue to be carried out in third countries, or for family reunification cases, at the embassy of Guyana. This will change in January 2023 with the opening of the U.S. embassy.

Destination: Europe and Latin America

Although the accusations by the Cuban government are not without logic, the main cause of the current migratory wave is ignored and minimized, it being the tense situation the country has been going through since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 and which has intensified in the last few months. Proof of this can be seen in the considerable increase of young migrants who have opted for European countries such as Spain, Russia, Serbia, or Italy.

In recent years, Spain has become one of the top destinations for Cubans and according to data published by the press, the total number of Cuban emigrants who remain in Spanish territory amounts to 188,353, of which 96,886 have already achieved Spanish nationality, another 67,967 are legal residents, and 23,500 remain in an irregular situation, including those currently processing their legalization.

Pursuing educational degrees has been one of the most popular routes for young people who decide to emigrate to this country and later decide to stay. Until December 31, 2021, 1,438 Cubans had a valid stay authorization to study in Spain. On the other hand, Law 52/2007, known as the Historical Memory Law, granted Spanish nationality to some 150,000 Cubans, whose offspring, in many cases, have also found a way to reach the Iberian country. Following the recent approval of the Democratic Memory Law, it is estimated that another hundreds of thousands of Cubans will gain Spanish nationality.

The case of Russia, and recently Serbia, is no less revealing. Although it is extremely difficult for Cubans to obtain a regular status after arrival in the country, the free visa means that it is used as a starting point for a journey to other countries in the European Union. The cost of travel can be between four to six thousand dollars. Despite having a smaller chance of success than those traversing from Central America to the United States, after the resumption of flights between Cuba and Moscow at the end of 2021, many saw an opportunity to reach countries in the Schengen area.

However, several news stories have reported Cubans stranded in Greece, Serbia, Macedonia, or Belarus, and even those who have been trapped, more recently, by the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine. Most try to find work in these countries and temporarily settle down to avoid returning to an island in crisis until they are able to move to Italian or Spanish territory.

Other lesser-known routes such as Ecuador, Chile, Panama, Colombia, Brazil and Uruguay are also destinations for Cubans. They arrive in these Latin American territories pursuing education, employment contracts, or through coyotes. Recently, the local Uruguayan press reported the country has denied refuge to 85% of Cuban applicants, who argue economic reasons in their applications, but these do not justify refuge.

Why Do Cubans Migrate?

Cubans have not stopped migrating, but in recent years the figures were less striking. This is because internally, retail trade was not completely occupied by Freely Convertible Currency (MLC) stores, a currency that is not used for paying common salaries and with an official exchange rate different from the informal one. Nor had the government initiated monetary reforms that have devalued the Cuban peso and caused soaring inflation. The economy has suffered a huge collapse in the last two years, with a 13% decrease in GDP and more than 500 state-owned companies reporting losses. Nor was there a similar level of shortages that included food, personal hygiene products, clothes, shoes, medicines, etc.

The crisis brought on by COVID-19, which caused a drastic decrease in tourism, and the consequences of the U.S. embargo, have also influenced the difficult situation the Cuban people are facing today. Similarly, the 11J protests made visible, like never before, the government’s repression against dissident thought. All these factors have influenced the current wave of migration that Cuba is experiencing and that, in addition to the separation of family members, will also have consequences in the short-, medium-, and long-term development of its society.

Many of the Cubans who have migrated today are of working age, depleting the island of its labor force, a problem that has been analyzed by highest spheres of the government and that heavily affects important sectors such as agriculture and the service industry. The negative migratory balance is also seen manifested in the island’s aging population; it’s one of the nations with the highest number of elderly people in the Americas.

At the same time, although there are high rates of life expectancy, women—capable of guaranteeing the replacement level of the population—are delaying their first birth until after the age of 30, or deciding not to have children in Cuba. Thus, many Cuban women who leave the country are of childbearing age and are waiting to reside abroad to have children. Others decide to leave the country with their entire family. A report in the Ciego de Ávila newspaper Invasor warned that emigration is one of the main causes of school dropout in that province. In the U.S. alone, in the current fiscal year, some 550 minors have crossed the border.

Cuba is not only a country that is getting older, but a country where more people are dying than being born, leading to a decrease in population according to the most recent data from the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI). In its most recent Demographic Yearbook, it reveals that since 1978 there has been no generational replacement. The Global Fertility Rate (TFR) is lower (1.45 in 2021) than the 2.1 children per woman needed to reverse the decline.

In 2021, 11,113,215 people resided in Cuba (Cubans with less than 24 months abroad are included), 68,380 less than what was recorded the previous year. This is the most pronounced decrease recorded since 1980. In 2021, there were 99,096 births (the first time that a figure below 100,000 is registered) and 167,645 deaths, a figure much higher than the historical trend.

Looking at it through an economic lens, the specialist Omar Everleny assures that the effects of the current migratory wave are also reflected in the national economy, which cannot capture the foreign currency that is destined for migratory procedures or that leaves the country. “A very simple calculation: just estimating that some 100,000 people will arrive in the United States throughout 2022 at an expense of between $8,000 and $10,000 per person, we are talking about a value of between 800 and 1,000 million dollars that leaves the country or does not reach the country,” he said.

The Population and Housing Census that will be carried out soon will not be able to tell us the real data of Cubans who live on the island because Cubans maintain their residency until 24 months after their departure (or longer, at present, due to the flexibility granted by the pandemic), but the popular feeling is one of loneliness.

After the stories of deaths, accidents, robberies, kidnappings, assaults, and human trafficking that illegal emigration entails, Cubans continue to sell their belongings, are victims of scams, apply for scholarships, and even put the lives of their children on the line in order to reach another country.

—Why are Cubans leaving, risking everything?

—Because they only have one life to live, and many are fed up.

Cyclical economic crisis; the harangue of politicians who ask for resistance, unaware of the reality of the people; constant blackouts of up to eight hours a day; medicine and food shortages; the decline of the health and education systems; bureaucracy; the repression of dissident thought; and the violation of rights are too many hardships to endure in a single lifetime.

Added to the growing numbers of people leaving are those with the desire to leave but have not been able to. They are focusing their efforts, not on developing the place where they live, but on emigrating. The exodus of Cubans can only be reversed by creating opportunities and implementing measures to reverse the harsh reality in which they live. At first glance, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen anytime soon.

Glenda Boza is a journalist for elTOQUE.

Illustration by Maikel Martínez Pupo. You can find him @MaikelStudio @maikelmartinezpupo.