Once again, Cubans flee more than 160 kilometers through the Florida Strait to the United States. The pandemic-led economic crisis is pushing them on a perilous journey.
In the small town of Orlando Nodars, 55 kilometers west of the capital, Havana, many families live in limbo.
Zulidis Elidias has been waiting for two months for news of her husband and nephew, who disappeared when their boat capsized while trying to reach Florida.
– Because of the epidemic, my husband lost his job. Many workplaces closed their doors, and he was at home for more than a year. Every time he goes to work, they ask him to wait, Elidias says.
The couple has a two-year-old son, which made her husband desperate. Many are in the same situation as him.
Cuba adopts private law
There has been a significant increase in illegal immigration from Cuba to the United States. Cuba is experiencing a major economic crisis due to the pandemic, additional sanctions from the United States, and deep cuts in financial aid from Venezuela, its most important ally. This resulted in a massive shortage of goods, which led to large demonstrations from 11 July.
Legal avenues were severely curtailed after the Donald Trump administration shut down nearly all services at the US Consulate in Havana. It happened after a number of employees fell ill with a mysterious illness, which the US thought might be due to some form of sonic attack by the Cuban authorities. Cuba denies this.
In the past, the United States issued more than 20,000 visas annually. Most Cubans who wish to obtain visas to the United States now have to go to embassies in other countries. Most people cannot afford tickets unless foreign relatives help, and in any case it is almost impossible to travel due to the pandemic.
the old way
That’s why many Cubans resort to the old form of immigration – they try to cross the Florida Straits to the United States on boats and small rafts. The crossing is dangerous.
The US Coast Guard said it has stopped 595 Cubans at sea since October 1, 2020. This is the highest number since the United States changed policy in 2017. In his last days as president, Barack Obama declared that even Cubans coming ashore, who should be expelled base. In the past, the United States granted asylum to Cubans who got American land under their feet, a policy called “wet feet, dry feet.”
The number is still very small. In 2016, nearly 5,400 Cubans were stopped at sea. The major refugee crises of 1980 and 1994-1995 also appeared, when the Cuban authorities temporarily abandoned all attempts to stop this migration. Tens of thousands came out in a very short time, and thousands perished at sea.
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missed a lot
There are also many who have come to the mainland in other ways. Between October 1 and June 30, the US Border Patrol reported that 26,196 Cubans attempted to enter the United States without travel documents, most of them across national borders.
Elidias is waiting for answers about her husband of 45 and her 22-year-old nephew. They were among a group of 18 men and two women who went out on May 25. The boat sank the next night, and the US Coast Guard picked up the survivors 29 kilometers southwest of Key West, Florida. The search continued for several days.
– Something happened, with the current or something, the boat capsized. The Coast Guard picked up eight people alive, found two bodies, and ten are missing, Elidias says.
Among the survivors were four of Elidias’ cousins. Some of them have already been returned to Cuba.
Elidias and other residents of Orlando Nodars agree that the Americans made the difficult and dangerous decision because of the economic crisis and the difficulty of obtaining visas.
Cuban historian Alina Barbara Lopez says that the mass migrations in 1980 and 1994-1995 arose from major crises, and the Cuban authorities opened the borders as a kind of safety valve when they were under great social pressure.
In 1980, dissatisfied Cubans stormed foreign embassies in search of visas. Fidel Castro opened the port city of Mariel to anyone who wanted to leave the country. 125,000 Cubans traveled north, causing a political crisis for US President Jimmy Carter.
Exodus in the 1990s stemmed from the massive economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Cuba lost its large export market and largest aid provider. Tens of thousands traveled to sea in all kinds of fairly seaworthy ships. Many died.
Since then, Cuba has signed immigration agreements with Washington. Thus, they are trapped, Lopez says.
Meanwhile, the Cuban government’s reforms have only led to superficial changes to the economy, which remains stagnant.
Thus, there is a stronger fundamental political basis for this crisis than there was before, says Lopez.
The Cuban authorities acknowledge that they have a potential migrant crisis. However, they believe that this can be stopped if the new US president, Joe Biden, fulfills an election promise to drop Trump’s tough sanctions and resume the dialogue Obama started. Trump’s plan was to remove the Communist Party from power.
In Orlando Nodars, Zuleydas Elledias hopes for a miracle.
– If someone thinking of crossing the strait asks me, I ask him not to. It is not safe. There is no money in the world that can pay for the suffering we are going through now, she says.
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