Nearly 2.7 million people living in the United States were born in Cuba or report Cuban ancestry. When Cubans migrate to the United States, they are often targeted by kidnappers who believe they are likely to have families in the United States with the means and willingness to pay ransoms. So Yonny Latifa, 27, had good reason to worry when she encountered soldiers on the Honduran-Guatemalan border en route to the United States earlier this year.
“When I saw them, I was scared,” says Latifa. New Times. “The routes through those Central American countries where the traffickers take you are the same for drug trafficking. I thought they were going to kidnap us or something, but apparently they and the traffickers had a good relationship.”
Latifa eventually made it to Mexico and had made plans to seek asylum at the US border. But, before that could happen, he was deported to Cuba on March 9 after it was discovered that he entered Mexico illegally. Now Latifa is unemployed and lives in Havana with her father.
He is not alone. Since the Nicaraguan government eliminated visa requirements for Cubans late last year, most Cubans trying to enter the United States now fly into Nicaragua and then make the journey north through Mexico on foot. , and at a record pace, eclipsing even the number of migrants arriving at the border from Central America. Between October 2021 and May 2022, more than 79,000 Cuban migrants have arrived on US soil and the New York Times reports that 150,000 Cubans will have arrived in this country by October 1, 2022. Record monthly numbers of Cuban immigrants were recorded in March and April with 32,000 and 35,000, respectively, before the number dropped to 25,000 in May. To put that in perspective, during the same period in 2019, approximately 21,500 Cuban immigrants arrived in the United States, according to data from US Customs and Border Protection.
The current factors driving the spike in Cuban migration are varied: inflation is skyrocketing around the world, and Cuba has not been spared. Long lines can be seen across the country as people wait for basic goods, and not always with success.
“The economy is the number one driver of migration,” says William LeoGrande, a professor of government specializing in Latin American foreign policy at American University in Washington, DC “The Cuban economy is in dire straits between the pandemic and U.S. sanctions United States. There is a feeling on the island that the economy is not moving forward. There is disappointment, hopelessness and frustration.”
The second reason, LeoGrande says, is pent-up demand.
During fiscal years 2015 and 2016, “about 50,000 Cubans came per year,” he says. “About 30,000 to 40,000 came with visas or family reunification, and others came with wet feet, dry feet.”
The United States has seen numerous waves of immigrants from Cuba since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, but none has matched today’s migration. From July 1959 to June 1965, the United States Coast Guard rescued 6,862 Cubans traveling north by boat. From the Cuban port of Camarioca, between October 10 and November 15, 1965, 2,979 Cubans accepted the offer of then-Cuban President Fidel Castro to leave the country after submitting a request to the Ministry of the Interior and accepting his resignation. any land or property in Cuba. But the thousands who took to sea overwhelmed the Coast Guard.
This led to an agreement between Cuba and the US to establish “Freedom Flights.” From 1965 to 1973, ten flights a week brought some 300,000 Cubans to the U.S. Then, from April to October 1980, during the Mariel Boatlift, some 125,000 Cubans traveled north after Castro allowed anyone who wanted to board a ship to the US. (Cuba notoriously freed untold numbers of would-be refugees from its prisons and psychiatric hospitals, but the vast majority of the migrants were seeking relief from political repression.)
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 significantly changed Cuban immigration to the US Previously, most immigrants were political refugees. After the fall of the USSR, the Cuban economy collapsed, sending the nation into an economic tailspin during a time the Cuban government called the “Special Period.” Since the 1990s, Cuban immigrants have been predominantly economic refugees. In 1994, when approximately 35,000 Cubans immigrated to the United States on makeshift rafts in what became known as the Balsero Crisis, the Clinton administration implemented the policy known as wet foot, dry foot: Essentially, Cubans who arrived on US soil (ie “dry feet”) were allowed to stay. Those who were intercepted or rescued at sea (“wet feet”) were sent back to Cuba. This policy was rescinded during the last days of the Obama administration as part of a short-lived normalization effort.
President Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy, which the Biden administration has largely left untouched, prevented much-needed money from flowing to the island and slashed American travel, which has ground to a halt during the pandemic and has slow to recover. This put Cuba in a significantly weaker economic position.
Now, a major pain point for Cubans has been the existence of “MLC” stores, or Freely Convertible Currency, that only accept payments in hard currency, such as the US dollar. Cubans without access to hard currency (often sent from abroad by relatives) are often forced to find what they need by standing in long lines at stores that accept the Cuban peso. Meanwhile, MLC stores typically stock a much larger offering of general merchandise. Facing such struggles on a daily basis can wear down the population, contributing to discontent and the desire to emigrate, explains Rafael Hernández, a Cuban political scientist who has studied Cuban migration for decades.
But Hernández paints a much more complex picture than simply blaming poor economic conditions in Cuba as the driving factor behind migration.
“The economic crisis is a factor, but from 1991 to 1995 it was much worse. In 1993 and 1994 we did not have the food production that [now] have in the private sector,” says Hernandez. “Compare the purchasing power of the dollar in the market with 1993 to 1995: the current situation is not so bad.
Comparing the current crisis to the migratory waves of 1980 and 1994, Hernández points out that Cubans who migrate now know that the decision to leave is no longer final because Cuban President Raúl Castro has allowed Cubans living abroad to apply for “repatriation”. Hernández believes that the opportunity to later return to Cuba is a factor “as important as the economic situation” when Cubans are deciding whether to stay or leave the island.
The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 allows Cubans to claim permanent residency after living in the United States for one year. But many believe that the special treatment Cuban immigrants continue to receive in the US will not last forever, resulting in a push to migrate sooner rather than later.
“If normalization continues, migration becomes more and more normal. The special entry rights become very doubtful”, explains Hernández. “The push factor cannot be understood without the pull factor.”