The Cuban Exodus: Causes and Effects / Dimas Castellanos

A raft is transported to the coast during the ’rafters crisis’ in 1994. (WILLY Castellanos)

Dimas Castellanos, 30 November 2015 — The unstoppable exodus of Cubans has become a crisis once again. While thousands of our compatriots are stuck at the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, the Government of Cuba chooses to ignore the main cause.

In recent months, thousands of Cubans have been traveling through Central America for the United States. On 15 November the Nicaraguan authorities blocked their way. On 17 November, Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations stated that these Cubans are “victims of the politicization of the immigration issue by the Government of the United States, of the Cuban Adjustment Act and, in particular, of the application of the call ’wet foot-dry foot’ policy.”

On 24 November the foreign ministers of the nations that make up the Central American Integration System met find a regional solution to the crisis. And on 26 November the Government of Ecuador decided to require visas to Cubans as of 1 December.

Human migration is a geographical shift that occurs when the natural or social conditions of a place make it impossible for residents to meet their needs, or threaten their lives. Emigrants leave places where things are bad and go to places where they are better. Thus, thousands and thousands of refugees are arriving in Europe even though there is no country in that region with an  “Adjustment Act.”

As statistics show, throughout its history Cuba has been a country of immigrants. Suffice it to recall that between 1910 and 1925 the island absorbed one-third of migrants from Spain to the Americas, and in 1920 11,986 immigrants were admitted to the island, while in 1920 the figure rose to 174,221.

The permanent exodus began in 1959 with the diversion of ships or aircraft and the abrupt breaking of diplomatic missions and desertion of those from missions abroad. First white Cubans, and later those of all colors, including adults, seniors, children and youth.

This is therefore, a process that has been sustained before and after the embargo (1961), before and after the Cuban Adjustment Act (1966), before and after the timid and partial reforms undertaken by the government of Raul Castro (2008), and before and after the restoration of diplomatic relations with the US (2015).

An exodus whose critical moments include Operation Peter Pan (sending unaccompanied children to the United States), and the departures crises through the ports of Mariel, with the Mariel Boatlift, and through Camarioca and the Guantanamo Naval Base.

Its long duration, the sociological diversity of migrants, the damage caused and threats faced by those taking the opportunity to leave, are reasons enough to set aside the unsuccessful escapes and confront once and for all the true causes, among them: miserable wages, a prohibition on entrepreneurs in their own country, the direct recruiting of foreign companies, the terrible state of transportation, an untenable housing situation, multiple obstacles to rural producers and the absence of civil, political and economic rights.

In the same year Law 989 was enacted with “measures toward real estate and personal property, or any other kind of value, etc., towards those who abandon the country with unforgivable disdain toward the national territory.” At the same time, new labels were applied to regime opponents who were called traitors to the homeland and the nation, scum and antisocials, and emigration was used to throw out the malcontents. Still today, the authorities still do not accept that any Cuban, despite his or her high level of education, may have a different idea in political, economic and cultural matters.

In “the other Boatlift” of Camarioca, in 1965, 2,979 left; in April of 1973 260,000 Cubans left by aire. In the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, 125,000 left the country. By way of the Guantanamo Naval Base in 1994 about 33,000 others left. During those three massive waves any number of tragedies occurred. Suffice it to mention the case of the 13 de Mar Tugboat which, on 13 July 1994, with 72 people on board and seven miles out from the bay of Havana, was purposefully rammed and sunk by other tugboats, with a toll of 41 dead, including ten children.

All of this is indisputable proof that, regardless of any external factors, the root cause lies in the unworkability of the economic model and the lack of civil liberties, such that none of the measures taken since 1959 to today have been able to stop steady flow of Cubans to other parts of the world. That picture has made of the diaspora a process sustained over time through as many pathways as the imagination and desperation of Cubans can design.

Besides the loss of life, the family separations and the multiple tragedies recorded, two of the side effects of permanent exodus are:

1. The decline and aging of the population at the rate of developed countries but in this case in one with a sustenance economy; and

2. The loss of the professionals (university graduates, technicians and skilled workers) who had constituted one of Cuba’s comparative advantages relative to other countries in the region.

Between 1931 and 1940, 9,571 Cubans emigrated to the United States; between 1941 and 1950, 26,313 did so; and between 1961 and 1970, 208,536 left for the U.S.

According to the Population Census of that country, in 2010 there were 1,213,418 Cubans living in Florida, representing an increase of 45.6% compared to the Census of 2000.

The solution to the immigration crisis is impossible without solving the structural crisis in which we are immersed, for which a heavy dose of political will is required, something absent to date.

The many measures taken by the Government of Cuba since 1959; the lack of a regional solution that could be offered by the Central American Integration System for Cubans stranded between Costa Rica and Nicaragua; Ecuador’s decision to require visas for Cubans in order to stop the migratory flow; and accusations against the United States; all these point but to effects but still fail to address the causes, which are internal and structural, so the exodus has continued and will continue at its own pace.

The closing of the chance to leave by way of Ecuador, one of the measures of the effects, will be reflected in illegal departures by any other means, including the return to the fragile marine vessels. The only solution is to attack the causes and this involves removing the political, social and economic model that generates this massive and ongoing exodus.

Originally published in Diario de Cuba