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April 16, 2021

Author: William M.
Professor of Government, American University School of
Public Affairs and senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, a
human rights advocacy group.

Original Article: Cuba’s Economic Woes May Fuel America’s Next Migrant Crisis

Not all
of the migrants hoping to claim asylum in the United States are fleeing Central
America’s violence-torn “Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, Honduras and El
Salvador, contrary to popular perception.

Of the
71,021 asylum-seekers waiting in Mexico for their
applications to be processed in the U.S. as of late February, 16% were Cuban,
according to federal immigration data.

makes Cubans the third-largest group of migrants, just ahead of Salvadorans,
and after Guatemalans and Hondurans.

Why Cubans flee

Cubans at America’s doorstep are mostly economic refugees. But since Cubans no longer
have preferential status over other immigrants – as
they did until former President Barack Obama stopped automatically admitting
Cubans who made it to the U.S. – claiming asylum is now virtually their only
hope of winning entry. G

who can afford it fly to South America or hire smugglers to take them to Mexico in “fast
boats” before trekking north to the U.S. border. Those who can’t afford to pay
smugglers try to cross the Florida Straits on rafts or small boats called
“balsas” – a dangerous 90-mile ocean passage.

So far
this year, the U.S. Coast Guard has picked up 180 Cuban “balseros” at sea trying to reach the U.S.
The number is modest – but it’s already more than three times the Coast Guard
rescues of Cubans made last year. Cubans intercepted at sea are returned to
Cuba under the terms of a 1995 migration agreement.

current uptick recalls the gradual increase in rafters rescued at sea in the
spring of 1994, numbers that rose exponentially that summer, culminating in the
“balsero” migration crisis.

by the collapse of the Soviet Union – communist Cuba’s main international
partner at the time – the 1994 exodus saw 35,000 Cubans arrive in the U.S.
in two months.

It was
the United States’ third Cuban migration crisis. In 1965, some 5,000 Cubans
embarked from the port of Camarioca in small boats, landing in south Florida.
In 1980, the Mariel boat crisis brought 125,000 Cuban migrants to the U.S. in
the so-called “freedom flotilla.”

migration waves came when the Cuban economy was in crisis and standards of
living were falling. All three occurred when Cubans had few avenues for legal
migration. With legal routes foreclosed, pressure to leave built over time as
the economy deteriorated, finally exploding in a mass exodus of desperate

After studying U.S.-Cuban relations for four decades, I believe the
conditions that led to these migration crises are building once again.

Economy in free fall

Hit by
the dual shocks of renewed U.S. economic sanctions during the Trump
administration and the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cuban economy shrank 11% in 2020.

President Donald Trump cut off two major sources of Cuba’s foreign exchange
revenue: people-to-people educational travel from the U.S., worth roughly
US$500 million annually, according to my analysis of data from the Cuban National Office
of Statistics
, and $3.5 billion annually in cash remittances.

pandemic hammered Cuba’s tourist industry, which suffered a 75%
decline – a loss of roughly $2.5 billion.

external shocks hit an economy already weakened by the decline in cheap oil
from crisis-stricken Venezuela due to falling production there, forcing Cuba to
spend more of its scarce foreign exchange currency on fuel. Since Cuba imports
most of its food, the island nation has experienced a food crisis.

result is the worst economic downturn since the 1990s.

Pent-up Cuban demand to emigrate

The 1994
Cuban migration crisis ended when former President Bill Clinton signed an accord with Cuba providing for safe and legal
migration. The U.S. committed to providing at least 20,000 immigrant visas to
Cubans annually to avoid future crises by creating a release valve.

Trump replaced President Obama’s policy of normalizing U.S.-Cuban relations
with one of “maximum pressure” aimed at collapsing the Cuban

downsized the U.S. embassy in Havana in 2017, allegedly in response to injuries to U.S. personnel serving there. And he
suspended the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, which provided upwards
of 20,000 immigrant visas annually to Cubans with close relatives in the U.S.

measures drastically reduced the number of immigrant visas given, closing the
safety valve Clinton negotiated in 1994. In 2020, just over 3,000 Cubans
immigrants were admitted to the U.S.

some 100,000 Cubans who have applied for the
reunification program are still waiting in limbo for the program to resume.

A policy problem

migration crisis brewing in Cuba has been largely overlooked while the Biden
administration focuses on managing the rush of Central American asylum-seekers
and caring for unaccompanied minors at the U.S.-Mexico border.

House Press Secretary Jen Psaki recently said that Cuba policy is currently
under review, but that it’s “not a top priority.”

officials could head off the migration crisis brewing in Cuba by making the
changes to U.S.-Cuba relations Biden promised during his 2020 presidential

the U.S. embassy in Havana would make it possible to resume compliance with
Clinton’s 1994 migration agreement to grant at least 20,000 immigrant visas
annually. That would give Cubans a safe and legal way to come to the U.S. and
discourage them from risking their lives on the open seas or with human traffickers.

Trump’s economic sanctions would curtail the need to emigrate by reducing
Cuba’s economic hardship, in part by enabling Cuban Americans to send money
directly to their families there.

reversing Trump’s restrictions on travel to the island would help revitalize
the private Cuban restaurants and bed and breakfasts that rely on U.S.

All these measures would put money directly into the hands of the Cuban people, giving them hope for a better future in Cuba.

Balseros arranging Departure, Playas e Este, 1994
Playas del Este, 1994. Did this one make it?
Launching the balsa (rAFT)