Record numbers of Cubans are fleeing their country as the island faces its worst socio-economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The number of Cubans seeking entry to the US, mostly at the border with Mexico, jumped from 39,000 in 2021 to more than 224,000 in 2022. Many sold their homes at low prices to afford one-way flights to Nicaragua and travel via of Mexico in the US.
Cuba’s 11 million inhabitants are in increasingly desperate straits. Internal migration from poorer provinces has led to overcrowding in the capital, Havana. Those for whom the government cannot provide houses stay albergues (dangerous abandoned buildings renovated as temporary housing). Others stay inside solar (houses), some in serious danger of collapse.
Acute shortages of food and medicine are a daily reality in a country ravaged by a US trade embargo since 1962 and tight government control of the economy since 1959. Regular blackouts reminded Cubans of the early 1990s, when Soviet subsidies ended. The USSR collapsed, leaving the island to struggle.
To survive that “special period,” Cuba relied on hard currency earnings from international tourism and nationals working abroad. Both are now greatly reduced. The COVID measures closed the island to foreign tourists and reduced the number of visitors by 75% in 2020.
Misguided monetary reforms, which unified Cuba’s two currencies, in early 2021 caused an inflationary shock. Food shortages have sparked an explosion in the black market.
On a recent trip to Cuba, this piece’s co-author James Clifford Kent spoke with locals and took photos. Luis Lázaro, a construction worker from Havana, told him: “It’s very bad. Full crisis: food, medicine, clothing. If it’s not one thing it’s another. You work non-stop to make ends meet and sometimes it’s not enough.”
As recently as 2016, after more than half a century of hostilities, US-Cuba relations were coming in from the cold. Barack Obama became the first sitting US president to visit the island since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. The Rolling Stones rocked Havana with a free concert.
Crowded cruise ships unloaded their passengers at the port of Havana, to take them on open classic car tours of the capital. Planeloads of foreigners descended on Havana to soak up the heady atmosphere, with Rihanna, Beyoncé and Jay-Z among the vanguard of high-profile Western visitors. Private enterprise flourished and the spirit of optimism was everywhere.
But Cuba’s economy and relationship with the United States slumped again after the election of Donald Trump in November 2016, just as the island’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro died. President Trump reinstated longstanding travel and business restrictions.
Meanwhile, US diplomats and intelligence officers stationed on the island reported hearing loss, headaches and vertigo in a mysterious outbreak of “Havana syndrome” in late 2016. Washington blamed Cuba and withdrew most of its embassy staff. , just two years after both governments opened embassies in their respective capitals for the first time since 1961.
One of Trump’s last acts before leaving office in January 2021 was to return Cuba to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, blocking its access to international funding. Trump had already limited the remittances Cuban-Americans could send to the island.
President Joe Biden has now changed policy again as pressure mounts on increased illegal immigration to the United States. It reopened the US embassy in Havana to visa applications in January 2023, offering some Cubans an official path to immigration.
Increased mobile internet access since 2018 and widespread use of social media play a major role in a new mood among Cubans. The Economist Intelligence Unit describes their dual impact: demand for political and economic liberalization and accountability has grown, while US sanctions and support for dissidents have emboldened those hardliners who resist reform.
Despite government restrictions and poor infrastructure, 68% of Cubans now have access to the internet. Whatsapp, Instagram and other social networks are used a lot by Cubans, especially young people.
Internet access was key to the 2021 protests in Cuba, when local discontent fueled by COVID-19 restrictions and widespread shortages led to street protests that police quickly quelled. Many high-profile artists and Cuban bloggers accused by the government of being funded by the United States have been arrested.
Making a mass exodus
Ana María, a 52-year-old Cuban mother of two, described how delinquency and corruption are on the rise. People would rather sell products on the black market than work for wages that do not cover basic needs, he said.
A 29-year-old Cuban artist, who did not want to be named, said: “Many of my close friends have joined el rumbo al norte (the route to the north) in search of socio-economic stability for themselves and their families.”
Cubans’ famous ability to resolver (to be resourceful) in the face of enormous difficulties reaches its limits. Hope fades fast.
After six decades of trade embargoes and a rigid socialist model, plummeting living standards led 2% of Cuba’s population to leave the island in just one year.
Many more are desperate to follow them.
Some names have been changed and some sources requested anonymity.
James Clifford Kent is Senior Lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Christopher Hull is Senior Lecturer in Spanish and Latin American Studies at the University of Chester.
This article first appeared on The conversation.