Largest Cuban exodus to the US in decades

Largest Cuban exodus to the US in decades points to Havana’s desire to pressure the White House


29 | 06 | 2022


The number of Cubans attempting to illegally cross the southern US border this year is projected to reach 150,000 individuals, surpassing levels during the crisis of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

En la imagen

US Border US Border Patrol agents encounter with migrants during a migrant smuggling event in June [CBP]

In the past months, over 115,000 Cubans were detained trying to illegally cross the southern US border. Cuba’s dire economic state, coupled with the ongoing political crackdown resulting from the massive public protests of summer 2020 on the island, have contributed to the increased flow in emigration—an increase which was further facilitated by Managua’s recent abolition of the visa requirement for Cubans entering Nicaragua. These developments beg the question of whether Cuba is intentionally using migratory flows as a weapon against the Biden Administration. Similar policies in Venezuela also exacerbate the preexisting US border crisis, making the possibility that these three ALBA countries are working in tangent to pressure Washington more than plausible.

In fiscal year 2021, 38,500 Cubans were detained trying to illegally cross the southern US border. In fiscal year 2022 this same figure is projected to reach 150,000 detainees. To date the figure has tripled (from October 2021 to April 2022), reaching 115,000 detainees. In February 2022 alone, 32,000 Cubans were detained at the southern US border, a figure equivalent to the monthly levels of maritime detentions seen during the 1994 ´Balsero’ crisis. If projections for fiscal year 2022 prove accurate, the number of Cuban detainees will soon surpass even the record-high level of 125,000 detainees registered in fiscal year 1980 during the Mariel boatlift crisis.

Guyana, the door to South America

Since 2017, Cuba-US relations have worsened, following President Trump’s reversal of the Obama administration’s more liberal policy towards Cuba, and the “Havana Syndrome” incidents, which affected the physical and mental health of dozens of US diplomats and their families stationed worldwide, but particularly in Cuba. Regarded by some as mass hysteria and by others as a clear Russian aggression, the scandalnonetheless resulted in the reduction of US embassy staff in Havana to ‘skeletal’ levels of 24 employees without any family members stationed at the post.

This move, which relocated the visa processing of Cuban citizens to the next nearest center in Georgetown, Guyana, had the indirect effect of reducing Cuban access to US legal migration. While under President Biden the Havana embassy staff has been increasing gradually, and some visa processing has resumed on Cuban soil, the “primary location for processing visas” will continue to be Georgetown, Guyana. With flights from Havana to Georgetown valued over $800 USD and involving a 19-hour layover in the Bahamas, this is a considerable obstacle between Cubans and US visa interviews.

Guyana is not only the gateway for Cuban legal migration, but also for illegal migration, as Guyana was until recently the only country in Latin America which does not require a visa for Cuban visitors. Cubans entering in Guyana have two options: the ‘Ruta Sur’ or southern route, which extends from Guyana, through Brazil, and ultimately ends in Uruguay, and the other more dangerous option which entails passing from Guyana through Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico in order to reach the southern US border.

In this latter option, Cuban migrants must traverse the dangerous Selva de Darién, of Darien Gap, which is the rainforest that covers the connection between Colombia and Panama. In the thickly forested jungles of Latin America, even the most powerful states have little territorial control. Additionally, more fragile states cannot establish territorial control even outside of the jungle in cities and towns. Gangs, cartels, and coyotes work together in an elaborate nexus of human trafficking which leaves migrants vulnerable to crime, rape, theft, kidnapping for ransom, and more.

On a separate note, transit countries such as Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica in the US route have been increasingly burdened by the cost of housing thousands of refugees let in by Guyana and have formed a united front in calling on Guyana and other countries in the region to implement more restrictive migration policies. Colombia, especially, is already sufficiently overwhelmed by the influx of almost two million Venezuelans and cannot cope with additional Cuban migratory flows.

Via Uruguay

When trying to understand the appeal of Uruguay as a final destination compared to the more historically typical destination of Cuban migration that is the US various factors come into play. Uruguayan political stability, economic prosperity, and sound democracy, coupled with the election in 2020 of President Luis Lacalle Pou who reduced the legal barriers to residency acquisition for migrants in order to alleviate Uruguay’s low population growth, made Uruguay an attractive destination for Cubans. Additionally, with the Obama and Trump administration crackdowns on Latin American migration, the US no longer seemed as inviting a destination as it once was.

In 2021, over 5,100 Cubans were legally registered to work in Uruguay with the Social Provision Bank (Uruguayan social security). One third of delivery workers in Uruguay before COVID-19 were of Cuban nationality. Riveras, the Uruguayan province located on the northern portion of the border with Brazil, experienced a 600% increase in asylum seekers in January 2022 from 2021 average rates. The small refugee camp in Riveras financed and run by the provincial government was ill-prepared to cope with this influx. COVID-19 protocols in place at the camp had to be abandoned as too many refugees were testing positive and needing to quarantine than the camp had space for. The U.S. embassy in Uruguay donated air-conditioned tents to the Riveras refugee camp to alleviate the crisis, but financing for the camp remains an issue, according to the head of the camp, who requested that the Uruguayan Ministry of External Relations contribute funds.

While Cuban refugees are still arriving to Uruguay at high rates, many Cubans who had settled in Uruguay are now moving on to the US. Beginning in 2021, more Cubans left Uruguay than arrived in Uruguay, a phenomenon that had not occurred throughout the past decade. The Biden administration’s perceived more favorable attitude towards migration, Cuban political unrest and economic despair, and the recent November 2021 abolition of the visa requirement for Cuban visitors by Nicaragua (the so-called Nicaraguan ’Trampoline’) all work together to create a situation in which over 115,000 Cubans have arrived at the US border in the first seven months of fiscal year 2022.

Nicaraguan ’Trampoline’

With the Cuban economy suffering its worst recession since the collapse of the USSR, and US sanctions remaining tight despite the recent moderate relaxation decided by the Biden administration, even basic goods such as food and medical products are in short supply, and political unrest is at a high. The July 2021 massive protests which spread across Cuba triggered a harsh wave of political oppression from the Castrist regime, including the jailing of many activists. The November 2021 Nicaraguan shortcut for Cubans looking to escape the Castrist regime for the US was decisive in the 2022 surge in Cuban arrivals at the southern US border, as it allowed Cubans to avoid traversing the deadly Selva de Darién.

The US government views the Nicaraguan abolishment of the visa requirement for Cubans as an act of aggression committed at the behest of Cuba in order to weaponize the Cuban migration flow and increase political pressure on the White House to ease sanctions on Cuba. Other analysts see in Nicaragua’s policy change a reflection of the Cuban government’s need to release political pressure: allowing discontented Cubans an easy escape through Nicaragua acts as a ‘steam valve.’ Both theories would seem to be supported by the Cuban government’s repeated violation of their 2016 repatriation agreement with the US to readmit deported Cubans, a responsibility that Cuba has been increasingly shirking.

The US government has been reportedly pressuring Nicaragua to reinstate the visa requirement for Cuban visitors soon. Airlines previously flying the route from Havana to Managua (Colombian “Wingo”, Venezuelan “Conviasa”, and Panamanian “CopaAir”) have all suspended their flights. While the Nicaraguan ‘Trampoline’ was largely responsible for the initial surge in Cuban arrivals to the US southern border in 2022, it does not seem likely that Nicaraguan policy will continue to be a decisive factor in Cuban migration flows in the future, as current developments have rendered it almost useless, given the absence of direct flights to Managua from Havana and the prohibitive cost of plane tickets via alternative routes.

In any case Nicaraguans will keep contributing to the increasing attempts to illegally cross into the US. Nicaraguan migration to the US topped 60,000 in 2021, up from under 5,000 in 2017. The political oppression carried out by President Daniel Ortega following his questionable 2016 and 2021 reelections and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic have driven Nicaraguans increasingly to attempt the journey north to the US. Nicaraguan emigration since the Ortega government’s anti-democratic crackdown and related economic crisis erupted in 2018 currently totals approximately 300,000 individuals, of which 40% (120,000) have been detained attempting illegal entry at the southern US border.

ALBA's strategy

Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, all three of which are major ALBA countries, figure prominently in the ongoing Latin American migration crisis. While the Nicaraguan ‘Trampoline’ has been thwarted by the lack of direct Havana-Managua flights, it is nonetheless a warning of the potential threat posed by ALBA cooperation in the weaponization of migratory flows against the US. These countries would be able to use migration flows to put pressure on the US in order Washington lifts some sanctions against their dictatorial regimes.

Migration was precisely the main theme of the 2022 Summit of the Americas held in Los Angeles at the beginning of June. Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela were ultimately barred from attendance by the White House. Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras chose not to attend the summit, though they are all signatories to the final declaration.

The summit’s final “Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection” was published on June 10, and aims to address “irregular international migration” in the Americas through a “regional approach.” Dealing comprehensively with the needs of “countries of origin, transit, destination, and return,” as well with international law, economic development aid, and transnational crime, the declaration nonetheless remains a set of “non-legally binding commitments to enhance cooperation and shared responsibilities on managing migration and protection in ways grounded in human rights, transparency, nondiscrimination, and State sovereignty.” In the absence of a hard law regional framework to tackle migratory crises, and without the signatures of three key ALBA countries, it seems likely that the Los Angeles Declaration will have minimal impact.