Cuba

Cubans' exodus to the U.S. already tops last fiscal year's

Cuban coast guards, right, stop seven men trying to migrate illegally to the U.S. June 4, 2009 file photo.
Cuban coast guards, right, stop seven men trying to migrate illegally to the U.S. June 4, 2009 file photo. AP

One year after U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations were reestablished, a growing number of undocumented Cubans are nevertheless arriving in the United States. More than 44,000 came so far this fiscal year, already more than in all of the previous fiscal year.

The Customs and Border Patrol agency reported 44,353 undocumented Cubans arrived at a U.S. airport, border crossing and by sea from the start of Fiscal Year 2016 on Oct. 1 to July 11. The number does not include arrivals at the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Figures by Customs and Border Protection showed 40,115 undocumented Cubans arrived in all of FY2015. The majority arrived at the U.S. border with Mexico after treks that usually started in Ecuador or Guyana and took them through Colombia, Central America and Mexico.

About 9,160 Cubans were eventually airlifted from Central America to Mexico.

But even the airlift did not ease the migration crisis.

About 2,000 Cubans remain in the Colombian town of Turbo, near the border with Panama, and more than 5,000 in Ecuador have asked the Mexican embassy in Quito for humanitarian visas. They were rejected. Ecuador also deported 122 Cubans who had asked for political asylum and staged a protest in front of the Cuban and U.S. embassies.

Dagoberto Valdés, head of the Convivencia Studies Center in the western Cuban city of Pinar del Río, said the increase in emigration is directly linked to the worsening “political, economic and social situation” on the island. Like previous mass migrations, he added, this one was sparked by “the totalitarian system that has ruled Cuba for nearly six decades.”

Until the improvements in U.S.-Cuba relations have “a real and permanent impact on the economic, political and social lives of Cuban citizens who live on the island, the crisis will continue. The increase in emigration after 17D shows it,” Valdés said, referring to Dec. 17, 2014, when President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced a thaw in diplomatic relations.

The ongoing migration crisis “represents a challenge to the system established to channel the Cuban exodus, through the Cuban Adjustment Act and the wet/foot, dry/foot policy,” said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Center at Florida International University.

The increase has sparked calls from several quarters, including the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington D.C., for ending the special benefits offered to Cuban migrants. The benefits represent “an injustice for other migrants from around the world who suffer from violence and oppression.”

The Obama administration has repeatedly said it will not change U.S. policies on Cuban migration, despite the many Cuban government demands for changes.

Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban-American, said Tuesday that Washington is cooperating with Central American governments to manage the orderly flow of Cubans trying to reach the United States.

Mari Carmen Aponte, acting assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, said last week that the U.S. government might change its policies on Cuban migration, but not before the U.S. embargo is lifted and bilateral relations are fully normalized.

Analysts said the exodus of Cubans will continue in the short and medium term.

“The mass Cuban migration will probably continue in the near future, because Cuba has not achieved many of the goals of its economic reforms and has not renewed its political system, which is unsatisfactory to many Cubans,” said Duany.

At the same time, Cuban families living in the United States “will continue bringing thousands of Cuban relatives to the U.S. whether by legal or clandestine means,” he added.

What's more, any attempt by the U.S. Congress to modify immigration policy could unleash another stampede of Cubans, trying to take advantage of the special benefits before they are abolished, the FIU professor added.

Valdés, a lay leader on Catholic church issues, said the Cuban people would suffer the worst consequences of a mass exodus, even though the Castro government might see it as “political and economic relief.”

Rather than encouraging emigration, the Cuban government uses it “as an important escape valve and an important factor in domestic stability,” Valdés said.

“The exodus is convenient for the government, even if the nation is bleeding, the population is shrinking dangerously and the migration has become a destabilizing element for the region,” he said. “The government prefers to export the instability rather than eradicate its deep and essential causes with peaceful and significant changes.”

NORA GÁMEZ TORRES AND MARIO J. PENTÓN ARE ON TWITTER @NGAMEZTORRES AND @MARIOJOSE_CUBA

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