Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: ‘Not even 10 Obamas can fix this country’

A Cuban migrant holds a sign that reads in Spanish “Help us Obama” during a protest at the Costa Rican border with Nicaragua on Monday.
A Cuban migrant holds a sign that reads in Spanish “Help us Obama” during a protest at the Costa Rican border with Nicaragua on Monday. AP

“Not even 10 Obamas can fix this country.”

— A young Cuban woman in Havana

A new generation of Cubans — with some access to dollars, connected via cellphones, and emboldened by Cuba’s liberalized travel policies — is leaving the island for Miami in droves.

Some call them “the reggaeton generation,” twenty- and thirty-somethings buying plane tickets to Ecuador, trekking through seven countries, and presenting themselves at the U.S.-Mexico border with the only visa they need: “Soy cubano.”

By land (those who can afford airfare, bribes, coyotes) and by sea (the poorer and bolder), young Cubans have been arriving in growing numbers since President Barack Obama launched a process to “normalize” relations with Cuba last December. But they had been trickling in via Ecuador and other third countries for months, even years, before the historic shift in U.S.-Cuba policy.

Rapprochement has only hastened what was already steamrolling — the desire to leave the island, now made more urgent by the fear that immigration policy favoring Cubans will change. This fear is not a “media talking point,” as a hard-line lobby group charges. I know this because I have interviewed some of the recent arrivals and followed their lives. They stay connected with Cuba, and help others back home make the crossing.

When the administration, hoping to stem the flood, issued an urgent press release earlier this year saying that there were no plans to change the Cuban Adjustment Act or the wet-foot, dry-foot policy, I laughed.

Too little, too late.

These young Cubans grew up seeing relatives leave the country. They want a share of the Cuban-American pie, too. Only they don’t want exile. They want U.S. residency and the right to return to Cuba whenever they want. They’re not here to talk politics and denounce the Castro government (although some do).

Watch Spanish-language television news reports and behold reporters and talk-show hosts dutifully following the old script and trying to get members of this generation to say that they’ve been repressed, that they hate the Castros, etc. Watch the immigrants wiggle out of the question. They know the rules: You lay low, you return with open doors.

None of this is a secret in Cuban Miami.

It’s only coming to greater scrutiny now that the Nicaraguan government has refused passage to the latest 2,000 Cubans trying to cross the border. What will happen? Who will take them?

Meanwhile in Havana, a nameless young woman being interviewed by a Miami television reporter tries to explain why her compatriots are leaving in droves:

“Not even 10 Obamas can fix this country.”

If you’ve reported on every Cuban exodus as I have, you know that every generation has a distinctive way of depicting their reality and creating a narrative. Her bold and priceless words spoke louder than anything I’ve heard in a while.

Not 10 Obamas, not 100 Obamas can fix a country where the solution to every problem, from the personal to the political, is to leave the claustrophobic island.

Only Cubans can fix Cuba. And if President Obama’s “new day” is not for the young, then for whom?

Related stories from Miami Herald