As Relations with the United States Defrost, the Cuban Exodus Escalates

It is a paradox of the normalization of relations between the two countries; while Barack Obama is visiting Havana, tens of thousands of Cubans are rushing to the United States.

“I’ve dreamt of the United States since I was very small.”* More than a year ago, Jordan Figuaroa left Cienfuegos, a city in central Cuba. After waiting for months in Ecuador and then traveling by bus through Central America and Mexico, he arrived in the United States in January hoping for a better life.

A teacher, he has settled in Miami, where he first lived on the streets, taking on small jobs before receiving help from a local organization. Today, he is waiting for his work permit and hopes to teach Spanish using computers, tools his pupils were deprived of in Cuba.

‘They Are Worried This Normalization Will Trap Them in Cuba’

Tens of thousands of Cubans have made this long journey in the last two years, despite the improvement in relations between Washington and Havana. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, over 43,000 Cubans entered the United States between October 2014 and September 2015, a leap of 78 percent from the previous year.

The concern is that the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States could put an end to the preferential immigration treatment that Cubans have benefited from since 1966. “They are worried that this normalization will trap them in Cuba, although the economy has not improved, the population is still subject to controls and the totalitarian regime is still in place,” explains Oscar Rivera, head of the Miami office of the Christian organization Church World Service, which assists asylum seekers. “That highlights the desperate situation and uncertainty they are facing.”*

In 1966, the Cuban Adjustment Act was passed into U.S. law. This act granted asylum to Cubans from the moment they set foot in the United States and entitled them to apply for permanent residence – a green card – after a year in the country. Cuba is the only country in the world to benefit from such a privilege. But until when?

‘The Exodus Continues To Escalate’

Although nowadays two thirds of exiles arrive by plane via other Central American countries and Mexico, some continue to arrive aboard makeshift boats, just like during the 1994 crisis of the “balseros,” or “boat people.” In 2015, more than 3500 Cubans were intercepted at sea.

Unlike those who arrive by land, those found at sea are sent back home. “They set sail aboard bits of cars and trucks. The exodus continues to escalate,” worries Ramon Saul Sanchez, founder of the Miami-based anti-Castro group, the Democracy Movement. Today, he is busy helping to find Cubans who have risked their lives trying to make the crossing. He continues, “Those who succeed are often dehydrated and close to death. Some are in better health. Everything depends on whether the aircraft has a motor. Sometimes, we only recover bits of bodies.”* There is no news of the four groups lost somewhere in the 150 kilometers between Cuba and Florida.

‘We Lack Everything, Especially Freedom’

He does not think the anticipated end of the Cuban Adjustment Act is the main reason for the current exodus. “There were Cubans fleeing the island well before this law,” he said. “As long as there is no economic or social change, and the government continues to prevent citizens from expressing themselves, the problem will remain.”*

Despite people’s fears, the Obama administration has reaffirmed several times that immigration policy toward Cuba will not change. But Jordan Figueroa is not convinced. “When Obama and Castro shook hands last year, I was scared. The problem in Cuba is political. We lack everything, especially freedom. The state does not help us. There is nothing to suggest that this will change.”*

*Editor’s note: These quotes, although accurately translated, could not be verified.

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