By Daniel Vásquez
With the intent to reach the United States as refugees, thousands of Cubans have created a migration crisis in Central America
The Cuban Adjustment Act, which for half a century has admitted Cuban refugees into the United States to live and work legally, remains one of Havana’s major points of contention against Washington in this new era of diplomatic relations that began a year ago. This has especially become a serious issue following the migration crisis of thousands of Cubans in Central America that began in November.
The restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries — after hostilities since the 1960s — has been championed by Democratic President Barack Obama as a way to remove a policy that has not produced the results the White House expected in promoting internal changes in Cuba. This is also a sign of acceptance that the Cold War is over and that more effective policies are needed to influence the communist island and to strengthen the United States’ leadership in Latin America.
Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro’s conciliatory speeches on Dec. 17, 2014 surprised the public by announcing the mutual willingness to restore diplomatic ties. This also triggered an alarm among thousands of people who fear the rapprochement between the two governments will be the end of the legal framework that has since 1966 allowed Cuban citizens to enter the United States by claiming they are fleeing communism, requesting refugee status and after a year and a day applying for permanent residence.
US official data reveal the arrival of more than 43,000 Cubans during fiscal year 2014-2015 — 24,278 arrived the previous fiscal year in October 2013 to September 2014 — which includes not only those who recently left Cuba, but also those who were previously living in other countries but still considered enclaves like Florida as a familiar territory, a kind of promised land with advantageous conditions to thrive in a related cultural environment.
Last year, Havana redoubled its complaints against the Cuban Adjustment Act, the program that welcomes Cuban doctors and the asylum to Cubans who reach US soil, arguing that such policies no longer make sense when both countries are normalizing relationships. At the same time, Cuba called for an end to the economic, commercial and financial embargo that has been in place for more than half a century. The Cuban government blames this embargo for the domestic economic failures.
On Dec. 29, Raúl Castro reiterated this to the Cuban parliament when he declared that “the ‘wet feet, dry feet policy’, the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program and the Cuban Adjustment Act remain the main stimulus for irregular migration from Cuba to the United States” and said that “we have reiterated to the US government that to normalize bilateral relations, the blockade must be lifted and the territory taken by the Guantanamo Naval Base must be returned.”
Throughout the years, the official Cuban press has called the Cuban Adjustment Act a “murderous law” because it encourages illegal emigration from the island and encourages people to risk their lives at sea in order to reach Florida. In 2015 the complaints against the law increased because Cuba claims that the exodus of Cubans causes instability in neighboring countries where Cubans cross. Until late last year, Cubans flew from Havana to Ecuador and traveled some 5,000 km on land to reach the United States.
Other arguments Cuba has raised against the aforementioned regulation is that it causes an exodus of the skilled workforce, a claim that has been supported by recent demographic studies that confirm a trend of aging population in the island, low birth rate and stagnant population growth. Analysts and the official press have expressed concern regarding the impact of this situation for economic development.
“Today one Cuban works to sustain four or five people on average; this is expected to double. We must get used to the fact that we will run, even the workplace, mostly with a population of 60 years of age and over,” said sociologist Antonio Aja, Director of the Center for Demographic Studies, in a recent interview with the Cuban press. He also warned of the need to develop public policies to address this phenomenon.
The images of thousands of Cubans stranded in Costa Rica since mid-November, when Nicaragua stopped them from continuing on their land route to the United States, claiming a threat to internal security, shows mostly the faces of men and women. Many of them told the press that they have technical training or are university graduates. They expressed their desire not to return to live in their homeland and explained that to leave they had to sell all their possessions.
The United States has reiterated over the past two months that for now it is not expected to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act. However, the people in Havana are incredulous regarding these claims, to the extent that the restoration of bilateral relations caused widespread surprise. Cubans interviewed by Latinamerica Press, who asked to keep their identities in reserve, confessed their certainty that both governments already have some understanding that will bring other surprises.
“For decades, I participated in large popular marches at the Plaza of the Revolution and at the US Interests Office in Cuba against US policies toward Cuba. However, in 2014, Raúl Castro did not consult me in any way on whether to restore relations with the enemy “, said Luisa, a 70-year-old Havana resident, to substantiate her opinion that the presidents of both countries have chosen to agree privately and then inform the public of their decisions. “Now I expect any other surprise,” she says.
Moreover, the outbreak of the crisis in November, when the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, an ally of Havana, forcibly stopped the entry of Cubans through Nicaragua’s border, followed by Ecuador’s announcement that it would restored the visa requirement for Cubans, fueled rumors in Cuba that the government would be using the incident of Cubans stranded in Central America to blame the United Sates as largely responsible for the crisis.
Protests in Havana
The Cuban official press took days to respond and report the incidents. The dissatisfaction with the sudden resumption of visa requirements for travel to Ecuador prompted Cubans who had already bought their tickets to Quito to gather in late November in front of the embassy in Havana to rally against the Ecuadorian government and against their own government despite the presence of troops and police cameras, an unusual type of protest on the island.
“I saw everything,” says Marisa, who lives in Havana, who accompanied her son to the Ecuadorian consulate when the visa requirement for Cubans was suddenly restored. “People protested without fear and demanded that Ecuadorian official give explanations.”
The migrant exodus has been a constant discussion topic in Cuba since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. For decades, Cubans’ desire to move to the United States was seen as the ultimate expression of disagreement with the socialist project. Those who left considered themselves exiles and usually had to endure torturous paperwork procedures or leave illegally. Now, the exodus of the XXI century also includes a strong sense of economic discontent.
The exodus to the United States exposes in a very concentrated way the internal contradictions in the island. The government of Raúl Castro has promoted economic reforms such as self-employment, land in usufruct to farmers, and private business in industries such as lodging, transportation and gastronomy. However, these policies have not been successful fast enough to motivate young people and professionals to wait for times of prosperity. On the other hand, the government’s approval of the arrival of US tourists with dollars tacitly feeds the image that local progress is interwoven with the northern neighbor.
The truth is that the flow of Cubans to the United States has a history dating back to the XIX century and has influenced the island, its political and diplomatic relations. A removal of the Cuban Adjustment Act would suppose a change of the scene, but not an end to the close migratory ties with the United State, where there is a Cuban community estimated at about 2 million people.