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Cuba-US Relations

Cuban emigration: causes and incentives

Measures like the 'dry foot/wet foot' policy have been an incentive, but the true cause of the national exodus has been our own Government.

La Habana

From the 16th century until the first half of the 20th Cuba was a country of immigrants. In spite of the close relationship with the United States, in 1959 the number of Cubans in the latter country did not exceed 125,000. After that date, however, expropriations and the loss of liberties on the Island sparked the civil war, with the greatest clashes coming in the Escambray Mountains, culminating in 1965.

In those six years the increasing departure of Cubans, who fled legally, in small planes or boats, generated a migration crisis. In response Fidel Castro announced, in a speech given in the Plaza de la Revolución, that he would open the port of Camarioca (Matanzas) so that that anyone who wished to could leave. The result was the first massive wave of Cuban emigrants.

Many of those Cubans who went to the USA prior to 1966 lacked a well-defined migratory status. When sea travel from Camarioca was interrupted, the thousands of Cubans who still wished to leave did so on "friendship flights" chartered by the American Government from Varadero. In this context, under the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson, the American Congress promulgated Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) on 2 November, 1966, so that the Cubans already in the USA and those who would arrive via airlift could apply for permanent residence.

Therefore, Cubans began to flee prior to the Adjustment Law, which, a result of the discord between the two governments, was an incentive, but not the real cause of massive emigration. This law made it easier for Cubans who had been admitted or paroled to change their immigration status to that of "permanent resident." In April of 1973, when the airlift ended, the number of émigrés during that first big wave came to 260,000.

In 1980 thousands of Cuban burst into the Embassy of Peru, which prompted the Government to organize the "March of Combatants" to demonstrate to the world the "massive support for the Revolution." And, to show that those leaving the country were the dregs of society, on the boats that came to pick up family members they placed inmates and mental patients. The magnitude of the stampede spurred the regime to institute a dissuasive procedure: “acts of repudiation.” In spite of all these obstacles, 125,000 citizens still left the Island during the second wave.

In 1994 groups of Cubans invaded the residences of the ambassadors of Belgium, and Germany, and the Chilean consulate, and several vessels were commandeered. On August 5th of that year hundreds of Havanans publicly demonstrated against the Government in what would be known as the Maleconazo. Fidel Castro reacted by again accusing the USA of continuing to foment illegal immigration. Similarly to in 1965 and 1980 he said: "measures must be taken or we will not prevent those who go looking for their relatives." As a consequence, in the summer of 1994 approximately 33,000 Cubans escaped from the Island in the third wave, with 31,000 detained at the Guantánamo Naval Base.

Between those three emigrations - occurring before the dry foot/wet foot policy implemented by Bill Clinton in 1996 and the parole program for Cuban doctors under the government of George W. Bush in 2006 -hundreds of thousands of Cuban left the country, a considerable number of doctors among them. Therefore, the cause of the physicians' flight, which began in 1959 and continues even today, predates those governmental policies.

Those two measures of the American Executive, taken in a context of confrontation, allowed tens of thousands of Cubans into the USA, regardless of how they got there. But these measures do not constitute the cause of the massive exodus, but rather an incentive, as Cuban emigration, like any other, is a form of geographic adjustment that takes place when the natural or social conditions of a place mean that a people’s needs are not met and they enjoy no security. Without this condition the incentive would never have worked.

With the agreements of 12 January, 2017 both presidential policies were repealed. Henceforth, according to a statement by President Barack Obama, Cuban medical personnel will be elegible to request asylum at US embassies and consulates in accordance with the same procedures applicable to all foreigners." In other words, Cubans will be admitted to the USA only if they have visas or permission from the Government to enter. And, like any other immigrant, they will be able to obtain a residence permit after one year and a day in American territory, but without a work permit or other benefit until then.

In the case of doctors, a considerable number of them have chosen to emigrate to other countries, where they do not have to invest a large sum of money and spend years at school to have their degrees validated. This fact explains their large numbers in countries of Latin America, Africa and Europe. Therefore, they will continue to emigrate until conditions in Cuba change.

According to the Joint Declaration, signed on 12 January, 2017 by both governments, the U.S.A. will continue to guarantee regular migration from Cuba, with a minimum of “20,000 people annually,” as was agreed to by the two countries in 1995 after the stampede through the Guantánamo Naval Base. Cuba, meanwhile, agreed that the prisoners, criminals and mental patients sent to the USA in 1980 from the Port of Mariel would return to the Island, as decided by the governments in December of 1984.

The preceding analysis yields the following conclusions:

- The recent agreements of 12 January are a manifestation of a return to negotiation, rather than confrontation, as should have happened before and should continue to occur in order to address the differences pending between the governments.

- The Cuban Government has been demanding from the USA the suspension of "incentives," but the solution to the emigration that has been taking place for almost six decades is impossible without resolving its main causes, which are to be found in the Cuban model.

- Because the number of people who want to leave the country is far greater than the 20,000 visas per year issued by the US, the exodus will continue. This means that the day that the American Congress repeals the Adjustment Act, Cubans will continue to flee in any and every possible way. The difference will be that no one will be able to blame the American government, as the incentive will be gone but the causes of emigration will remain.

- The frustration felt by those who cannot go, and the impossibility of thriving in a country devoid of opportunities, will aggravate discontent that until now had found an escape valve thanks to America’s “incentive” policies during decades of confrontation.

The four massive exoduses (Camarioca, Mariel, Guantánamo and the most recent, through Central America) which alleviated the Government, sustaining governability, demonstrate that although American policy has been an incentive exacerbating the exodus, the true cause is elsewhere.

To prevent or diminish the massive exoduses and ongoing emigration that have driven over 2,000,000 Cuban towards other places, it is necessary to undertake internal reform thorough enough so that Cubans can find in their country what they are currently looking for outside it.

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