Perspectives on Cuba’s current migration wave and the role of U.S. policy

Julio Antonio Fernández Estrada, Visiting Scholar at the Cuba Studies Program at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, and Denisse Delgado Vázquez, Doctoral Candidate in Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, share their thoughts on the recent trends in Cuban emigration, the possible causes to the record-breaking migration, what makes this current migratory wave distinct, and the role that U.S. policy plays.

1. The current migratory wave has frequently been compared to two previous large migration waves: the 1980 Mariel Boatlift and the 1994 Balsero Crisis. What, if anything, is different about this current wave of Cuban migration in comparison to the 1980 Mariel Boatlift and the 1994 Balsero Crisis? What characteristics or phenomena, if any, have remained present throughout the previous waves and the current one? If there have been significant changes, why do you think they have occurred?

DENISSE: In the current Fiscal Year 2022, more than 177,800 Cubans have arrived in the United States according to information provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. This is the largest migration surge in recent decades, surpassing both the 1980 Mariel Exodus (125,000) and the 1994 Balsero Crisis (30,900).

The three migratory waves occur in different contexts, in which the migratory routes and the characteristics of the migrants vary. In 1980, with the opening of the maritime bridge between the Cuban port of Mariel and Key West (Florida), Cuban exiles in the United States sailed to Cuba to pick up their relatives. In addition, Cuban officials put other people they considered a problem for Cuban society on these ships, including prisoners and psychiatric patients. This introduced greater diversity to the migratory flow, since in comparison to previous waves of migration, the Mariel Exodus was composed of a more racially and economically diverse population, whose educational level was lower.

The Balsero Crisis, unlike the Mariel Exodus, occurred in a context of deep economic crisis, after the fall of the Socialist bloc during which the Cuban people were affected by the paralysis of transportation by experiencing food and medicine shortages. The migration of the rafters (balseros, in Spanish) takes place by sea, like the Mariel, but the route is much more dangerous. The “balseros” left in rustic boats that they built themselves. The “balseros” were predominantly urban men who went alone, without their families, were younger than the general Cuban population, and had varying levels of education. They left mainly for economic reasons, although there were also political reasons.

Like the Balsero Crisis, the current migratory outburst takes place in a context of an economic crisis, which is structural in nature and much more complex. It is further compounded by the effects of restrictive U.S. policies on Cuba, including restrictions on remittances and travel in the midst of a difficult health situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Joining this economic crisis is a series of protests on the island, most visibly in July 2021, which add a political nuance to the current crisis. The motivations for emigration are economic, family, professional, and political, and migrants have diverse economic and professional levels.

Unlike the Mariel Exodus and the Balsero Crisis, the routes of the recent migratory outburst are more diverse, as they include maritime, air, and land routes. Particularly, border crossings between Mexico and the United States have increased, and Cubans have joined the irregular migratory caravans of Latin American migrants. It is a highly risky migration, like the Balsero Crisis, but where there is a greater presence of families migrating together, including more vulnerable members, such as children, the elderly and people with medical conditions.

2. The current state of life on the island has been compared to the extreme difficulties Cubans faced during the Special Period in the 1990s. Why are we seeing larger numbers of Cuban migrants now? What has changed?

JULIO: I think there is a fundamental change, which is that millions of people have access to the internet, allowing the crisis to be “transmitted” live, or reported in many ways, which in turn has meant an increase in political opposition and the dissemination of their ideas and proposals. As a consequence of this media war that has been unleashed among bloggers, YouTubers, Telegram channels, Facebook debates, and has transcended the state media, there has also been an increase in political repression, censorship, and persecution of independent journalists and activists, which has produced an unprecedented political environment in Cuba in over 60 years.

I also believe that the structural crisis of the Cuban economy, political system, and society is now perceived with more anguish, desperation, and hopelessness. An important difference between the two periods is that the mothers and fathers of the young people of the 90’s, among whom I include myself, did not advise us to leave the country whereas the families now make emigration plans in which they even organize solo departures from Cuba for young people.

The profound repression that resulted from the protests and demonstrations of July 11 and 12, 2021 has removed the last ounce of patience from the Cuban people, because for many people it took away the innocence of a citizenry dependent on a paternalistic and beneficent State, by revealing its dictatorial and violent side.

3. Cuba’s Minister of Economy and Planning, Alejandro Gil, recently announced 75 new measures aimed at supporting Cuba’s economic recovery, including resuming an official exchange market for the dollar and allowing foreign investment in Cuba’s private sector. Will these policies have an impact on the current spike in migration? What immediate steps could Cuba’s government take to alleviate irregular migration flows and improve life on the island?

JULIO: I do not believe that the latest measures announced by the Cuban economy minister will change anything in the panorama of Cuban emigration to other countries. The people of Cuba have learned not to expect much change after announcements of government measures. There is a very big disconnect between the government’s triumphalist discourse and the people’s appreciation of progress. I believe that limitations on travel by third countries or by the Cuban State itself will affect the migration plans of the Cuban people. The economic measures of the Cuban government have not been able to become reliable evidence of improvement to the material welfare of the people even when they have been approved in the last Party Congresses as Guidelines for the next five years, therefore, it is not to be expected that this “hope” will give optimism to the Cuban citizens.

4. So far in Fiscal Year 2022, over 1 percent of Cuba’s population has left the island. Additionally, as you have detailed, the current migration wave includes many families and young people. What impact does the current exodus have on the future of the island? What impact, if any, does the current migration crisis have on vulnerable and/or marginalized communities on the island? What are the main challenges faced by the country moving forward?

DENISSE: Current emigration, as a demographic indicator, has an impact on population dynamics on the island. Ten years ago, Cuban emigration was already being carried out by young people, between the ages of 20 and 40 (ONEI, 2012). As they are of an economically active age, this migration reduces workforce turnover in Cuba. This is compounded by the multiple challenges presented by the aging population on the island, where there is an insufficient network of public services to care for the elderly.

Likewise, over the years, there has been an increase in the number of female migrants in relation to male migrants. This adds to the complex socio-demographic situation in Cuba, where fertility levels are low and life expectancy is increasing. The emigration of women decreases population replacement rate (the rate at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next, which is based on the number of children born per woman) in Cuba, since they tend to postpone the decision to have children until after they have emigrated or take the children with them.

On the other hand, although irregular migration is racially diverse, Cuban migration is characterized by a greater presence of people who identify as white. Thus, remittances are received predominantly by white families living on the island, thereby reproducing economic inequalities that are intertwined within the island’s racial profile. It is important to mention that vulnerable or marginalized communities in Cuba have a greater presence of black and mestizo people.

JULIO: I believe that Cuba is losing a young force of people in their most productive and enthusiastic years for work and for change. The complex situation of population aging in which Cuba finds itself is well known, with a huge number of people over sixty years old, which is a comforting indicator, but at the same time many of these people live alone, they have no access to food other than what is rationed by the State through the Food Supply Book, they do not have a pension in line with inflation which damages the purchasing power of those who live on their salary or pension of any kind. The Cuban youth is not only emigrating, but also is not reproducing because couples are taking a long time to have children, or they decide not to have them, or they wait to have them outside of Cuba, or in any case they have one child. The Cuban population has been decreasing in recent years and in the face of this dilemma the government does not seem to be reacting effectively.

The marginalized and vulnerable communities are in increasingly worse situations because the ways in which Cubans currently emigrate reproduces a very old system of inequality and inequity, because the families of these neighborhoods, settlements, towns, cities, do not have the necessary resources to pay for plane tickets to Nicaragua, Guyana or other countries, embassy fees, the cost of human traffickers, etc. In these circumstances, when a family manages to get someone to leave the country, they do so at the cost of losing assets accumulated throughout their lives or getting into debt, often with loan sharks. In addition, emigration becomes one more ingredient in the reproduction of the violence in which marginalized communities live because it feeds a perspective of life that does not expect to contribute to society but rather to hurt it until the objective of escaping from it is achieved.

5. Normalization efforts under the Obama administration brought improvements to U.S.-Cuba relations, Cuba’s economy, connection between Cuban Americans and relatives on the island, and helped create a sense of hope amongst the Cuban people. Since then, U.S. policy under the Trump administration and the Biden-Harris administration has halted progress until the Biden-Harris administration recently announced the restoration of some areas of engagement with Cuba. What impact have U.S. policies towards Cuba and on regional migration had on the current spike in migration? How can U.S. policy most efficiently alleviate irregular migration flows from the island and facilitate safe migration for Cuban migrants? How else could the US best support the Cuban people?

DENISSE: U.S. policies toward Cuba have affected Cuban migration. Various historical moments have shown that irregular Cuban emigration increases in contexts of economic crises in Cuba, in which the U.S. administration implements restrictive policies on travel and remittances.

For example, in the midst of the Special Period in 1994, during the administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, travel to the island was limited and cash remittances were prohibited. It was in this context that the Balsero Crisis occurred. Later, in 2019, during the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump, travel and remittances to Cuba were limited again, which worsened the situation of economic instability on the island. Restrictive policies become a trigger for irregular migration, which functions as an “escape valve.”

This situation requires a scenario where the regional commitment to find reasonable solutions to irregular migration, establish agreements for the protection of migrants, and improve stability, as expressed during the Ninth Summit of the Americas in June 2022, is fulfilled. To this end, it is important for Cuba to participate in these opportunities for dialogue, given the relevance of the increase in irregular Cuban migration, which has added to the regional migratory crisis.

In the Cuban case, the Family Reunification Parole Program (CFRP), as well as issuing the 20,000 annual visas for Cuban migrants, will favor a safer and more organized migration, but will not solve the problem of irregular migration. It requires a set of policies that act systemically. Eliminating restrictions on remittances and facilitating the flow of remittances will help the Cuban people, as remittances have the capacity to support family survival strategies during economic crises. Remittances can also enhance development strategies, especially through the role they can play in private businesses, in generating new income, and in offering job opportunities for Cubans on the island. Facilitating the flow of remittances in Cuba could also be an alternative opportunity for Cuban families to develop economic strategies to use rather than face the risks of irregular migration.

JULIO: It is abundantly evident that U.S. policies toward Cuba, since 1959, have had an impact on Cuban emigration to the United States and elsewhere. It is also true that in the 19th century Cuba was already the largest sending country of migrants to the US in all of Latin America and the Caribbean. U.S. policy on the Cuban Revolution is quite well known, in summary, we can say that encouraging the departure of Cubans from a country building a socialist society to the world’s leading promoter of a way of life sustained by a capitalist economy and ideologies averse to communism, has been an objective of that policy at least in some important moments of the political crisis that some call the Cuba-U.S. dispute.

On the other hand, the Blockade-Embargo is a constant and complex policy that perpetuates the Cuban economic crisis, that feeds and worsens it, in addition to giving a sense of resistance to overcoming it and of victimization to the government that endures it. In any case, the Embargo/Blockade seems to be a real and imagined constant variable of all the economic, political and social problems of Cuba in the last sixty years.

I think that the Obama administration demonstrated that a policy of rapprochement between the two governments in conflict was a good way to indirectly support forms of democratization in Cuba’s politics and economy. I also think that any step of understanding, within the limits of what is valid in International Law, is a way to improve the daily life of the Cuban people, to enrich the mutual experiences of both countries in their respective problems and successes, and to consider and raise both peoples’ and cultures’ awareness of their respective historical achievements and debts.

I think that U.S. policy can contribute a lot to Cuba simply by encouraging dialogue, by listening and respecting. There is a lot that the United States can offer to Cuba in terms of experience with political and legal mechanisms to improve the rule of law, the functioning of legislative bodies, the functioning of judicial structures, and even in Cuba’s preservation of a continental European legal system of non-Anglo-Saxon heritage.

6. Is there anything else you would like to share or think is important for the public to know?

JULIO: I would like to state for the record that studies on emigration, from any country and to any place, should be done while taking into account the emotional component involved. I know this is done, but it is important in the case of the current Cuban migratory crisis, that relevance be given to the sustained suffering of the Cuban people over decades, imprisoned in a situation of economic isolation produced by political and ideological differences between two governments, but is suffered in any case by those who are most helpless, dependent, marginalized, deprived of ways to get out of this contradiction that is beyond their control.

The effect of the Blockade/Embargo on Cuban culture is of deteriorating all possible environments of democratization, political dialogue, consideration of the political rights of the opposition in Cuba, the bureaucracy’s confidence in the human rights approach for the improvement of public administration, and economic reform with some features of liberalization.

From the CDA website.