Human Rights and
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Latino-Cuban Dialogue

Promotion of the Political Opening in Cuba


Cuban exodus: a move we’ve seen before

To explain the massive migratory wave, one must take into account the situation people face on the island and the factors that pull them northward. It must also be recognized that this is yet another instance of manipulation of human beings by autocratic governments.
Cuban migrants at the airport in Managua, Nicaragua. La Prensa via

The last two and a half years have seen the largest exodus of Cubans since 1959. It amounts to approximately 4% of the population and the proportion is even higher among doctors, teachers and other professionals from the island. Most have gone to the usual destination for Cubans, the United States, but have changed the usual sea route for one of air followed by sea. Approximately 425,000 Cubans arrived on U.S. soil between 2022 and 2023, most of them crossing over from the Mexican border. Some 36,000 more applied for asylum in the U.S. directly from Mexico. They have also gone to Spain and South American countries.

To explain the massive migratory wave, one must take into account the situation people face on the island and the factors that pull them northward. It must also be recognized that this is yet another instance of manipulation of human beings by autocratic governments.

In Cuba the period of the Covid-19 pandemic was harsh and recovery has been slow. On July 11, 2021, thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the government. They were tired of the frequent blackouts, food shortages and other economic deprivations they routinely suffered. They also demanded freedom, inspired by the hymn "Patria y vida" (Homeland and life), as opposed to the revolutionary slogan "Patria o muerte" (Homeland or death). The government of Miguel Diaz Canel could have responded with political and economic liberalization, but no: it chose repression. It imprisoned hundreds of people, including many young people and also children, and hardened empowered the judiciary to be even harsher with dissidents.

The economic situation on the island did not improve and the population remained dissatisfied. After a few months, the Cuban government, which normally harasses its diaspora, took measures to facilitate emigration. It seems that the regime has decided that it would do well to open an escape valve for potential dissidents, as well as eventually increase the flow of remittances to the island. Equally, if not more important, it also wants to influence the United States. Joe Biden's administration has reversed only some of the sanctions that his predecessor (and likely rival in November 2024) Donald Trump maintained against Cuba and has not taken it off the list of countries that support terrorism (which the Obama administration had done and Trump reversed).

The Cuban government has frequently resorted to the maneuver of using migrants to pressure the U.S., for example, with the Mariel exodus in 1980 and the raft crisis in 1994-1995. What is new about this latest round is that it appears to be a coordinated move by the authoritarian regimes of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In November 2021, the government of Daniel Ortega eliminated the visa requirement for Cubans in Nicaragua. Airlines from several Latin American countries, including Venezuela's Conviasa, began offering flights from Cuba to Managua. From there, they could pay smugglers to take them north. The goal of this collective action would be to persuade Joe Biden's administration to lift economic sanctions against officials of the three countries.

In the U.S., Cubans in this new wave have found that their legal status and chances of staying permanently are less firm than in previous times. During 2021 and 2022 the Biden administration left in place the immigration restrictions implemented in the context of Covid (known as Title 42). However, in January 2023 it announced a humanitarian permit (legally known as parole) for Cubans, Haitians and Venezuelans arriving orderly in the US by air. In the same month the US reopened the consulate in Havana (which had been closed due to "sonic" incidents since before the pandemic).

Immigration is a point of great political vulnerability for Biden. All indications are that rather than compromise on immigration reform during his administration, his rivals in the Republican Party have preferred to maintain the impression of an unmanageable crisis until the presidential election. Despite being ideologically the most anti-communist, Republicans have not supported Biden's attempt to offer sanctuary to victims of autocratic self-styled communist countries in the hemisphere. In fact, they want to undermine it. Along with Republican governors in 19 other states, Texas Governor Greg Abbott sued the federal government over the parole policy, and the House of Representatives impeached Alejandro Mayorkas, the Cuban-born Secretary of Homeland Security, blaming him for the border crisis.

Migration policy is also international policy. Humanitarians in the hemisphere should recognize the cynical maneuvers of the Diaz Canel, Maduro, and Ortega regimes for what they are. All three countries blame U.S. sanctions for the disastrous conditions suffered by their citizens. This is also part of the same playbook. It always works to gain sympathy from countries in the region and also from progressives in the US. Successively, they soften criticism of authoritarianism or even deny it.

In October 2023, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López de Obrador convened a meeting of migrant-sending countries, including Cuba. The final declaration called to "Urge countries of origin, transit and destination to implement comprehensive migration policies that respect the human right to migrate." This is a good objective. But it does not remove the importance of recognizing that the region's dictatorships are producing misery and their only achievement seems to be to hold on to power at the expense of the liberty of their inhabitants.

Sybil Rhodes
Sybil Rhodes
President of CADAL
Director of the Department of Political and Legal Sciences, the Degree in International Relations and the MSc in International Studies at CEMA University. PhD in Political Science at Stanford and with a degree in Latin American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is an expert on the field of international relations and comparative political studies.

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