The perfect migrant

In the last two years, more than 600,000 people emigrated from Cuba to the United States, and another significant number did so to different countries. It constitutes the highest migratory record in the history of the Cuban nation, more than a third of all those who have emigrated since the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, a relevant social drain, especially for a country where human capital is its main economic asset and the population balance depends on native reproduction, since there is hardly any immigration of foreigners to balance the departure of people.

What factors have driven this migratory “explosion,” to what extent is it an exclusive problem for Cuba, and to what extent is it a reflection of people’s “exhaustion” of the Cuban political system, as some have claimed?

It is worth pointing out that we are not in the presence of an exceptional phenomenon, the Cuban migratory volume is not among the most notable in the world and barely represents 10% of regional migration; It operates under special conditions, without forced displacement, and political contradiction is not the only explanation of the phenomenon, although it always has repercussions in that area given the collective nature of the Cuban socialist project and the conflict with the United States, something that does not happen in other countries. 

The motivations that drive people to emigrate are very diverse and are determined by the context in which the migratory process takes place, especially the policies of the countries that send and receive migrants. However, two major determining factors are present in the phenomenon: people’s dissatisfaction with their existential reality, whatever the cause, and the perception that this dissatisfaction cannot be resolved in the place where they live.

As is the case with the inhabitants of the rest of the planet, Cubans are exposed to objective influences that stimulate international migration. Among others, the exacerbation of the contradictions generated by the unequal development of countries, the spread of consumption patterns that are difficult to achieve in places of origin, as well as the enormous advances in communications and transportation, all of which has served and based on the formation of a “migratory culture” that rationalizes the decision and facilitates the mechanisms to implement it.

At a time when very restrictive immigration policies prevail and Cubans themselves have been forced to use irregular routes to enter the United States, Cuba has continued to be the object of a policy of “promotion of emigration” by the US, which is unique in the world. The formula consists of making the living conditions of Cubans difficult, encouraging them to emigrate under any circumstance, and accepting them almost indiscriminately, once they arrive in North American territory.

There are practically no undocumented Cuban migrants in the world, because asylum is at hand if requested, especially if it is a person from the sphere of science, culture or sports, who can always justify a ‘credible fear to escape from the clutches of communism,’ even if the Cuban government has financed the ticket or he is a tourist without someone chasing him or her. Generally, the acceptance of the supposed political asylum is accompanied by welfare benefits, which facilitate the settlement of newcomers and stimulate the emigration of others.

Once this process is triggered, it is proven that emigration generates more emigration, since with the growth of flows, the motivations for family reunification increase and the support structures for the movement of new migrants are consolidated. Cubans are privileged in this sense, since 80% have emigrated with relative ease to the richest economy in the world and their support base is determined in a well-consolidated ethnic enclave, which offers cultural affinities, employment opportunities, and other forms of assistance to newcomers. It is said that Miami is Cuba’s second capital with the advantage that it enjoys, the benefits of the developed world, and is not blocked by the greatest power on the planet—as is the case in Havana.

Due to these components, Cuban migration presents a rather unique example of the convergence of the forces of attraction and expulsion that explain the migratory phenomenon anywhere. If, thanks to the economic advantages it offers, Miami is a very powerful pole of attraction for Cuban migrants, Cuba’s economic problems are a factor that pushes emigration by exacerbating endogenous contradictions present in the country’s own social structure.

The most important is that, as a result of the socialist system itself, Cuba produces human capital that the national labor market cannot fully assimilate and this pushes emigration, precisely to the sectors best prepared to face the migratory challenge. The other great contradiction is that, partly as a result of the US blockade, the Cuban economy has not been able to deploy its potential and guarantee that salaries meet the fundamental needs of the people. It also does not always guarantee the personal and professional fulfillment of those who aspire to ascend the social pyramid, which generates a “crisis of expectations,” which is also a factor that pushes emigration, especially among young people.

To the internal economic dynamics, we must add the difficulties present in the political transformations that take place in Cuba. The disappearance of the unifying factor represented by the figure of Fidel Castro and the emergence of a new social subject, which does not respond to the same patterns of consensus, have created a new political scenario in which emigration is one of the manifestations of its disturbances.

To make matters worse, the new government has had to operate in an environment marked by enormous difficulties: devastating natural phenomena, dramatic accidents, the pandemic, the escalation of US policy, shortages of fuel and other supplies, as well as an adverse international climate, have contributed negatively to the readjustment of the political system and damaged the effectiveness of the government. As this is a government whose functionality lies in knowing how to overcome the most difficult conditions for the population, the complexity of the task does not exempt it from blame for its errors and insufficiencies.

Although in confronting the pandemic, Cuba had a meritorious performance that saved the country from disaster, and demonstrating the value of the country’s existing scientific potential and its ability to manage it. But during the economic recovery, the government has not been able to overcome the enormous challenges that it faced, imposed by US policy and the shortcomings of the Cuban system. A series of failed policies have exacerbated the levels of dissatisfaction of the population and this has not only been expressed by the high levels of migration that are currently observed, but also in manifestations of discontent with few precedents in the history of the Cuban revolutionary process. 

As long as it operates as a factor that tends to mitigate the inequalities generated by capitalist globalization, migration is not bad in itself. In the case of Cuba, such benefits are manifested through remittances and the participation of emigrants in certain spheres of the economy and national culture, although the restrictions of the US blockade and Cuban regulations themselves have limited their scope. Unfortunately, Miami is also “the capital of the enemy,” which provides a political connotation to the Cuban migratory phenomenon, and does not exist in other countries and which has conditioned its treatment.

The biggest problem occurs when migratory volumes reach disproportionate levels, as is happening today, without compensatory mechanisms existing with respect to their impact on national life. The best way to correct these imbalances is to reduce emigration through economic development and the well-being of the entire population, but this is not a solution that is available to Cuba in the immediate future. However, a palliative could be to look for alternatives that improve the living conditions of the country’s particularly sensitive migratory potential, either through a specific increase in salaries or through the better development of private forms of management and cooperatives, recently approval in the country.

In any case, Cuba is not in a position to regulate the migratory attraction factors that US policy can deploy, nor would it be sensible to try to stop emigration by coercive methods, so we must assume it as an endemic problem and try to mitigate its negative effects through greater integration of emigrants into the national life. Facilitating migratory circulation, with a view to developing the so-called “transnational migrant,” one who maintains an active existential presence in their country of origin, seem to be the best alternatives to mitigate the unwanted effects of migration. This requires an in-depth review, not only of Cuban policy towards its emigrants, but also of the conditions in which they can insert themselves into the life of the country.

Although US policy and the pressures of the Cuban-American right have been aimed at limiting these contacts, they are facilitated by the international conditions in which the migratory dynamic operates with high levels of circularity and communication. This is partly due to the fact that the more recent the emigration the greater the link of these people with their country of origin. It is also a result of the transformations that are operating in Cuban society today where significant advances have been made in the process of acceptance of its emigrants, and objective conditions have been created that facilitate policies aimed at their social insertion.

The intelligence of Cuban policy will lie in taking advantage of these opportunities and facing a phenomenon that will continue to influence all aspects of national life.