Cuba

Why Cubans Are Migrating to the United States at a Record Pace

Havana, Cuba
Havana, Cuba Photo by Holger Leue/Getty Images
Nearly 2.7 million people living in America were either born in Cuba or report Cuban ancestry. When Cubans migrate to the United States, they're often the targets of kidnappers who believe they are likely to have families in the U.S. with the means and willingness to pay ransoms. So 27-year-old Yonny Latifa had good reason to worry when he encountered soldiers on the Honduran-Guatemalan border en route to the United States earlier this year.

"When I saw them, I felt fear," Latifa tells New Times. "The routes through those Central American countries the traffickers take you through are the same to traffic drugs. I thought we would be kidnapped or something similar, 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 U.S. border. But, before that could happen, he was deported back to Cuba on March 9 after it was discovered that he illegally entered Mexico. Now Latifa is unemployed and living in Havana with his father.

He's not alone. Since the Nicaraguan government dropped its visa requirements for Cubans late last year, the majority of Cubans attempting to enter the United States are now flying to Nicaragua, then making the journey north through Mexico on foot — and at a record-setting 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 made it to U.S. soil and the New York Times reports that 150,000 Cubans will have arrived in this country since October 1, 2022. March and April saw monthly record numbers of Cuban migrants at 32,000 and 35,000, respectively, before the number dropped to 25,000 in May. To put that into perspective, during the same period in 2019, roughly 21,500 Cuban migrants came to the United States, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The current factors driving the uptick in Cuban migration are varied: Inflation is soaring around the globe, and Cuba hasn't been spared. Long lines can be seen throughout the country as people wait for basic goods, and not always successfully.

"The economy is the number-one driver of migration," says William LeoGrande, a government professor specializing in Latin American foreign policy at American University in Washington, D.C. "The Cuban economy is in dire straits between the pandemic and U.S. sanctions. There is a sense 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 the 2015 and 2016 fiscal years, "some 50,000 Cubans were coming per year," he says. "About 30,000 to 40,000 were coming on visas or family reunification, and others were coming via wet-foot, dry-foot."

The U.S. has seen numerous waves of migrants from Cuba since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, but none matches the current migration. From July 1959 to June 1965, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued 6,862 Cubans making the journey north by boat. From the Cuban port of Camarioca, between October 10 and November 15, 1965, 2,979 Cubans took up then-Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro on his offer to leave the country after submitting an application to do so to the Ministry of the Interior and agreeing to forfeit any land or property in Cuba. But the thousands who took to the seas overwhelmed the Coast Guard.

This led to an agreement between Cuba and the U.S. to establish "Freedom Flights." From 1965 to 1973, ten flights per week brought an estimated 300,000 Cubans to the U.S. Then, from April to October 1980, during the Mariel Boatlift, some 125,000 Cubans journeyed north after Castro permitted anyone wishing to board a boat to the U.S. to do so. (Cuba notoriously released an untold number of would-be refugees from its prisons and mental hospitals, but the vast majority of migrants were seeking relief from political repression.)

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 significantly changed Cuban immigration to the U.S. Previously, most migrants 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 dubbed the "Special Period." Since the 1990s, Cuban migrants have predominately been economic refugees. In 1994, when roughly 35,000 Cubans emigrated to the United States in makeshift rafts in what later became known as the Balsero Crisis, the Clinton administration implemented the policy known as wet-foot, dry-foot: Essentially, Cubans who made it to U.S. soil (i.e., "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 final days of the Obama administration as part of a short-lived normalization effort.

President Trump’s "maximum pressure" policy, which has been largely left intact by the Biden administration, prevented much-needed cash from flowing into the island and drastically reduced American travel, which came to a halt during the pandemic and has been 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," or Moneda Libremente Convertible, stores, which only accept payments in hard currency, such as the U.S. dollar. Cubans without access to foreign currency (frequently sent from abroad by family members) often are forced to find what they need by waiting in long lines at stores that accept the Cuban peso. MLC stores, meanwhile, typically stock a much greater supply of general goods. Facing such struggles on a daily basis can wear on the population, contributing to discontent and the desire to emigrate, explains Rafael Hernandez, a Cuban political scientist who has studied Cuban migration for decades.

But Hernandez paints a picture far more complex than simply blaming the poor economic conditions in Cuba as the driving factor of migration.

"The economic crisis is a factor, but 1991 to 1995 was much worse. In 1993 and '94, we didn’t have the food production we [now] have in the private sector," Hernandez says. "Compare the market purchase power of the dollar to 1993 to '95 — the current situation is not as bad."

Comparing the current crisis to the migration waves of 1980 and 1994, Hernandez points out that Cubans migrating 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." Hernandez considers the opportunity to later return to Cuba to be a factor "as important as the economic situation" when Cubans are deciding whether to stay or leave the island nation.

The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 allows Cubans to claim permanent residency after living in the U.S. for one year. But many believe that the special treatment Cuban migrants continue to receive in the U.S. won’t last forever, resulting in an urge to migrate sooner than later.

"If normalization goes on, migration becomes more and more normal. The special entrance rights become very dubious," Hernandez explains. "The pushing factor cannot be understood without the pulling factor." 
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