14ymedio, Madrid, 9 February 2023 — The European press normally pays little attention to what is happening in Cuba. In recent months, however, the continent’s media outlets have turned their focus to the enormous exodus from the island, which has left business managers unable to find workers. Data published on Thursday in an article by Agence France Presse (AFP) casts light on this catastrophic situation.
Take the case of Havana’s Nel Paradiso restaurant. Of the sixty employees it has hired since November of 2021, only ten remain. “When Nicaragua opened its doors, it was a real blow to us. In one week we went from fifty employees to thirty,” says Annie Zuñiga, the restaurant’s hiring manager. Her experience illustrates an odd paradox: Employment on the island is plentiful but no one wants to live there.
As reported in the AFP article, Zuñiga has been desperate to hold onto employees since the government of Daniel Ortega lifted visa requirements for Cubans, a measure that has unleashed an exodus the magnitude of which has never been seen before.
“We haven’t been able to create a unified, stable team. As soon as we think, ’OK, this is the team,’ one of them comes to me and says, ’This is my last week. Next week I’m leaving.’ It’s a disaster,” she says.
Norberto Vazquez, head waiter at Nel Paradiso and a sommelier instructor, sums up his own experience of having trained more than fifty people, only to see them leave the country. “Some students tell me, ’Professor, all I think about now is how I’m going to leave,’ and that makes me incredibly sad,” he says.
At Park Central, a hotel owned by the state but managed by Iberostar, 30% of employees recently emigrated and their jobs have been filled by students. Similarly, sixty employees at a travel agency headed by Stephane Ferrux, a French national, left in one year.
“When there’s nothing to buy because almost everything is in short supply, when you feel you have no future even if you have financial means, then you flee,” says Ferrux. He points out that many of these emigrants had high salaries, as much as 1,500 dollars a month, forty-five times more than the average Cuban. But it means little if you can find nothing to eat, even at hard currency stores.
If it is hard to find waiters and tourism workers, the situation is even worse for independent press outlets, as this publication knows all too well. Finding employees — people willing to risk threats, fines and prison sentences — is much more difficult than in any other profession. Many leave, however, not for these reasons but in search of a decent life.
At least a dozen journalists and colleagues at 14ymedio have gone into exile over the last nine incredible years, the most recent being Alejandro Mena Ortiz. After years walking the streets of Havana to report on daily life, including going quasi-undercover to report on the July 11 protests, he ultimately decided to join the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who, in late 2021, left the country, setting out on the “volcano route.”* He expects his family to join him in the next few days in the United States, where he currently lives.
The British news agency Reuters dispatched a team to the village of Isabela de Sagua, for decades the point of departure for many migrant boats. This week it published an article on the exodus. “People here are desperate to leave,” says Carlos Hernandez, a 49-year-old fisherman interviewed for the article.
Hernandez reports that, among local residents, whose village is only 130 miles from the Florida Keys, there is a lot of talk about a Biden administration program that allows Cuban emigrants to enter the U.S. via a sponsor. It provides a safe way out but is not an option for many of those who want to leave.
“Cubans have decided they can’t live here and they get out any way they can,” explains 59-year-old Ana Maria Mederos, who earns a living selling coffee from the doorway of her house. She herself is unable to leave because she is caring for a sick relative.
“Those who can leave under this new program will do so. But there are many others who do not have that option and are still willing to risk doing it by sea, by land, whatever it takes,” she adds.
The problem of finding workers is not limited to the private sector. The state-owned newspaper Trabajadores reported in late 2022 that the Carlos Manuel de Cespedes electrical power plant had forty-five vacant positions due to the exodus. “We are still generating electricity but not without enormous effort,” admits the plant’s labor foreman.
According to data provided by the international press, most Cuban emigrants are between the ages nineteen and forty-nine, and are also highly educated. Universities, laboratories, medical centers… no sector is immune from migration. It is just one new element adding to the impoverishment of an Island in which the population pyramid is on the brink of collapse.
*Translator’s note: An overland journey led by paid “coyotes” through Central America and Mexico to the United States.
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