Cuba faces the next migration crisis
Along Fifth Avenue in Havana, the old stately homes are now embassies. These days they stand out not only because of their flags and seals, but because of the throngs of visa applicants desperately trying to find a way out of Cuba. The biggest crowds used to form in front of the American embassy, but not since the United States suspended visa processing after diplomats suffered unexplained health ailments. The economic difficulties of Venezuela have greatly reduced the supply of discounted crude oil shipments to Cuba and all but eliminated lucrative business deals. The impact is seen in the shortage of fuel and food, even for those residents who hold convertible pesos, the Cuban currency substitute for the dollar.
The United States has also restricted American visitors and banned cruise ship stops on the island, greatly reducing another major source of foreign exchange. Cubans are recalling the infamous “special period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union when the cutoff in Soviet aid caused a severe contraction in the Cuban economy. Visitors perceive a rising concern about the future, an impatience with economic stress, and an inflexible communist bureaucracy. Many Cubans, especially the young, believe that the only way to improve their lives is to emigrate away from the island.
Today, there is a steady trickle of Cubans who are traveling to Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, joining larger streams in Central America and Mexico, making their way to the southern border. After Hondurans, Guatemalans, and El Salvadorans, Cubans form the next largest group of those seeking asylum in the United States. Cuba has a long tradition of using emigration as a steam valve for popular discontent. After the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s, the Freedom Flights brought tens of thousands of refugees unhappy with Fidel Castro and his imposition of communism. In 1980, tensions over an incident involving Cubans seeking refuge in the Peruvian embassy led Castro to announce all Cubans were free to leave.
The result was the Mariel boatlift bringing 120,000 Cubans to the United States in a month. Internal tensions during the “special period” in the 1990s led to a Cuban rafter crisis that brought thousands more refugees to the Florida coast until the Coast Guard interdicted rafters at sea and detained them at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. The negotiations with Cuba led to the “wet foot dry foot” policy whereby Cuban rafters interdicted at sea were returned to the island while the few who survived and reached American shores were allowed to stay. The United States also agreed to accept 20,000 Cuban immigrants a year, a flow reduced since the American embassy has ceased visa processing.
The current social and economic strains within Cuba, combined with the ratcheting up of American economic sanctions on the island, are creating the conditions for a new mass exodus. The aging Communist Party First Secretary Raul Castro and the younger political cohort poised to assume power know from history that mass migration of Cubans to the United States not only eases domestic tension, but forces the United States to focus on Cuban concerns. This time, however, the rafters will more likely depart western Cuba for the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, rather the cross the Florida Straits directly to the United States. If Cuba refuses to accept them back, it would again set off a major exodus. These Cuban refugees would be waiting at the southern border within just days of their arrival.
The United States government could face a critical decision of how to respond if the number of Cuban refugees swell to tens of thousands. If history is any indication, this new wave of Cuban immigrants will also be accommodated in the United States. The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 allows Cubans to apply for lawful permanent residence after a year of physical presence in the United States. Unlike the Central Americans, these Cuban refugees will have a politically and economically powerful Cuban American community that has always welcomed them in the past.
John Caulfield is the former chief of the United States interests section in Havana. He is the founder of the Innovadores Foundation, an American nonprofit organization that supports technology entrepreneurs in Cuba.