“It’s a really dramatic situation, my boy: everyone who can get out of here does,” says a woman waiting her turn to apply for a visa outside the Mexican consulate in Havana. Like every weekday, a crowd gathered here after making an appointment months ago through the website of the diplomatic mission in the Cuban capital. On his cellphone screen, a young man watches a video of fellow Cubans swimming through the Rio Grande to the beat of a popular reggaeton song titled El campeon (The champion). He says one of the songwriters, an artist named Kimiko, just crossed the border from Mexico into the United States. “He has already been baptized.”
Since it is virtually impossible to get an appointment at the consulate anytime in the near future, some people pay hundreds of dollars to people who promise to get things done faster. This system, which feeds on people’s desperation, usually ends in a scam. The woman waiting for her turn admits that if she obtains a tourist visa, she does not plan to return to Cuba: “My two children left a year ago with their wives for Central America. They are already in Miami, where my first grandson has just been born. My mother and my sister left after the special period [a prolonged economic crisis in the 1990s]so I’m all alone.
Like the relatives of this woman, tens of thousands of Cubans have left the country in recent times through various means. But now it’s different. This time it’s a scramble. The young people leave. Whole families emigrate. Some even sold their house to pay for the trip. Cuban authorities say many more are choosing to stay and that the United States is manipulating the matter to make it look like you can’t live in Cuba. But departures continue unabated.
“The current Cuban migration crisis – and I don’t know why it hasn’t been described as such – makes me extremely sad, because it’s like a wave that keeps growing and, from what I can see , it will continue to grow, it will continue to impoverish us,” says Cuban writer Leonardo Padura, author of Like dust in the windthe great novel of post-revolutionary exile.
Data from the U.S. Department of Customs and Border Protection speaks for itself. In the seven months from October 2021 to April 2022, nearly 115,000 Cubans entered the United States illegally through the Mexican border, three times more than during the last fiscal year (between October 1, 2020 and 30 September 2021, when 38,500 Cubans arrived in the United States by the same route).
Travel has increased exponentially since Nicaragua announced in November that Cuban citizens would no longer require visas to enter the Central American country. Thousands of people have since left the island for Managua, the first leg of a journey that involves falling into the hands of smugglers, crossing borders and bribing corrupt officials to reach states. from northern Mexico, a risky journey in which migrants can pay between $8,000 and $10,000 to reach their destination.
In December, 7,983 Cubans entered the United States through the southern border. In January, they were 9,700, almost double the number in February, then 32,000 in March and a record 35,000 in April, the same number of people who left the island during the Cuban rafter crisis. from 1994.
“It’s a silent boat lift from Mariel,” says a Cuban sociologist, alluding to a mass migration of Cubans to Miami in 1980. “We’re talking about the fact that in recent months almost the same number of emigrants have entered by Mexico than during the entire exodus of 1980, when 125,000 people left. And the trend will continue.” And these figures do not include Cubans who emigrate to other countries or who try to leave by sea despite the risk of being deported by the coast guard: nearly 1,000 would-be emigrants by boat have been intercepted over the past four months.
According to Cuban authorities, from January to mid-May, more than 1,300 Cubans were repatriated to the island from Mexico, the United States and the Bahamas, compared to 1,500 deportations in 2021. Mexico even had to charter a weekly flight (and sometimes two) to send back all the illegal immigrants.
The causes of the current exodus are diverse, although perhaps the main one is the intense deterioration of living conditions. The country is going through an acute crisis aggravated by the pandemic, the inflation derived from the so-called “monetary order”, the inefficiency of the state productive system and the slowness of economic reforms. Of course, the intensification of the American embargo, which Havana considers to be the main cause of its ills, also weighs heavily. It was a perfect storm that placed the country in front of a migration crisis with uncertain consequences.
“More than anything, there is a general despondency, an absolute lack of hope that the situation will ever improve,” says a young man queuing to buy a ticket at the offices of the airline Copa, which serves Central America. “People can’t take it anymore,” he says. “Young people have no incentive to stay, and the best of them leave, the academics, the most educated, even the well-placed people…” This last fact is confirmed by a European diplomat, who explains that two employees of his embassy had just left for the United States earning around $1,000 a month, far more than any salary on the island: “When I asked them why they were leaving, the one of them replied: ‘You only have one life to live.
The Cuban government has recognized “the sustained increase in irregular emigration” and also in repatriations. But she criticizes Washington for stimulating this flow by maintaining laws such as the Cuban Adjustment, which grants benefits to emigrants from the island and makes their expulsion practically impossible, and also for not respecting the migratory agreements signed between the two countries. These establish that the United States must grant a minimum of 20,000 emigrant visas per year, which has not happened since the Trump administration dismantled its consulate in Havana due to alleged “attacks sounds” against its officials, which have never been proven.
During a recent high-level meeting between the two countries to discuss migration issues – the first of the Biden era – Cuba criticized Washington for having an “incoherent” policy, which on the one hand exacerbates the difficulties of the country through the embargo and on the other prevents orderly migration. Havana assures that, in addition, Washington has pressured countries like Costa Rica and Panama, which now require a transit visa for Cubans who intend to travel to Nicaragua, a measure that has caused scenes of chaos and huge queues in front of these embassies in the capital.
When things get tough in Cuba, leaving becomes a safety valve. And now things are very tight. Faced with a constant human flight, leading scholars, intellectuals and writers such as Padura have expressed concern about something they believe is mortgaging the nation’s future. The issue is discussed almost daily on social media, and the government is urged to introduce the changes the country needs (and not just economic) as a matter of urgency, to give people hope.
Padura – who has never wanted to leave his country – says he saw people walking past a store all night to buy any product and resell it the next morning. “I hear almost everyone complaining about not having enough money to start with, so it should come as no surprise that there are so many people, of all ages and walks of life, looking for a way out.”
Like Padura, filmmaker Fernando Pérez, author of cult films like Havana Suite, sees a divorce between street reality and the official world portrayed by state media. “The official rhetoric goes one way and the reality goes another. It is very harmful. People need answers, they need dialogue. How to maintain a dialogue? I don’t want to be a dissident, but how am I going to follow you if what you’re telling me has nothing to do with my reality? he said in a recent interview with digital media Oncuba.