CubaBrief: Cubans arriving in record numbers along Mexico border. Havana weaponizing migration to leverage Washington. What is to be done?

An Administration enters the White House and in good faith unilaterally improves relations with Havana, and this is followed by an upsurge in the number of Cuban migrants trying to enter the United States. This was the case during the Johnson, Carter, Clinton and Obama Administrations. It is also occurring now with the Biden Administration. Close observers would have seen this coming. Nearly a year ago on June 3, 2021 CFC’s executive director stated in an interview on CBS4 Miami with Hank Tester that this crisis would continue until the Administration firmly responded to Havana.

“What’s driving migration over the past half century in regards to Cuba are two factors. The Cuban nightmare created by the Castro brothers combined with a perception of weakness of the occupants in the White House seeking unilateral concessions with Havana,” said John Suarez, Executive Director at the Center for a Free Cuba. … ” With the Biden administration promising to engage with Cuba, Suarez said we can expect to see more Cubans attempting to make the journey to Florida.”

Others have a different opinion. Michael Bustamante, a Cuba historian at the University of Miami, argued in The Washington Post on April 7, 2022 that “tougher sanctions — combined with Cuba’s own economic failures — are supercharging emigration.”

History does not back up his point of view. Consider the following facts, and which hypothesis is strengthened by them.

First, Professor Bustamante and the authors of The Washington Post article make a glaring omission. No mention that during Obama’s detente with Cuba between 2014 and 2016 over 120,000 Cubans entered the United States in another migration surge comparable to Mariel. This was at a time of loosened sanctions, and under an Administration seeking normalized relations that provided an influx of international credits.

Cuban refugee crisis 2015

Secondly, tougher sanctions began to be put in place in 2017, but migration from Cuba during the Trump Administration collapsed to the pre-normalization levels of 2011. The Cuban economy was also in crisis during this period, but there was not a surge in Cuban migration to the United States.

Third, both these patterns were repeated in prior Administrations. Considering that beginning with Lyndon Baines Johnson, who ended the Kennedy Administration’s efforts to violently topple the Castro regime, a de facto improvement of relations, Havana responded to this positive development by sparking a migration crisis in 1965 in Camarioca.

There were no Cuban migration crises under the Ford and Nixon Administrations though they sought a diplomatic understanding with Havana, but things cooled off quickly when Havana did not reciprocate, and Kissinger in anger contemplated military action against Cuba.

The Carter Administration began a new outreach to Havana, and despite the Castro regime not reciprocating in improved behavior, pushed on and loosened sanctions, opened interests sections in their respective countries in 1977, lifted the travel ban, and authorized Cubans to send remittances to their families on the island. Havana responded by expanding their military actions in Africa and Latin America, with the assistance of a Soviet brigade on the island. This culminated in the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, where Fidel Castro personally selected rapists, murderers, and mental patients to seed the exodus to smear the Cuban diaspora, and cause a bloody crime wave in the United States.

Mariel Boatlift 1980

During the Reagan-Bush years, sanctions were restored, Cuba was placed on the list of state terror sponsors, and Radio and TV Marti providing uncensored news to Cubans on the island were launched. In 1983 Cuban troops were defeated by the Americans in Grenada, in a humiliating defeat for Fidel Castro. When Fidel Castro threatened another exodus in retaliation for Radio and TV Marti, the Reagan Administration made it understood that it would be considered a military provocation. There was no migration crisis during the eight years of Ronald Reagan, and the four years of George H.W. Bush.

The pattern continued during the Clinton and Bush 43 administrations. The Clinton Administration, beginning in 1993 sought to normalize relations with Cuba, set up permanent contacts between the U.S. and Cuban military in 1994 and were confronted with a rafter crisis that same year, and the shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996. Sanctions were tightened in 1994 to leverage the Castro regime in secret negotiations during the migration crisis but the migration agreement favored Havana. The economic embargo was codified into law in 1996 as an alternative to military action following the shootdown, but was never fully enforced and loosened in 2000. George W. Bush entered office in 2001, and during his eight year tenure sanctions were toughened in 2003 in response to the Cuban Black Spring, but there was no migration crisis.

As mentioned above it was during the Obama Administration with years of engagement and loosening of sanctions on Havana that the next migration crisis occurred. President Biden during his 2020 campaign promised a return to the Obama Cuba policy, and engagement by an Administration that unlike his predecessor would act rationally. The debacle in Afghanistan, and signaling Putin that he could do a minor incursion into Ukraine without serious repercussions, may have all sent a green light to Havana that they could further intensify the migration crisis and leverage additional concessions from the Biden Administration, as they had from the Clinton Administration in 1994-1995.

Back to the Future

To obtain a better understanding of Havana’s strategy against Washington one must read Professor Kelly M. Greenhill’s 2002 paper, “Engineered Migration and the Use of Refugees as Political Weapons: A Case Study of the 1994 Cuban Balseros Crisis.

Packed to the limit, a boat prepared to leave Camarioca Harbor (1965)

In this peer reviewed paper Professor Greenhill looked back to Camarioca in 1965, Mariel in 1980, and the 1994 Cuban rafter crisis and draws some remarkable conclusions that continue to manifest themselves through to the present day. She described how a pattern was first established in the Camarioca crisis during the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration by the Castro regime.

In September 1965, Castro announced that any Cuban who had relatives living in the US could leave the island via the port of Camarioca, located on Cuba’s northern shore. Castro also invited exiles to come by sea to pick up family members who had been stranded on the island, following the suspension of commercial flights between the two countries during the Cuban Missile Crisis three years earlier. Two days later he began offering two flights daily from Havana to Miami. … By unleashing his “demographic bomb,” Castro demonstrated to the US government he could disrupt its immigration policy and the opening of the port at Camarioca carried with it a “lightly-veiled” threat, namely that Havana, not Washington, controlled Florida’s borders. Almost overnight, and with little warning, the Castro regime had presented the US with a major refugee crisis. President Johnson initially responded with contempt to Castro’s move, making a speech before the Statue of Liberty in October 1965, in which he proclaimed that the US would continue to welcome Cubans seeking freedom “with the thought that in another day, they can return to their homeland to find it cleansed of terror and free from fear.” However, after the numbers of those leaving the island began to escalate, Johnson quickly changed tack and began a series of secret negotiations with Castro. The result, announced the following month, was a “Memorandum of Understanding,” a formal agreement that established procedures and means for the movement of Cuban refugees to the US.

This occurred again in 1994 and it was engineered opportunistically by the Castro regime. In the abstract for her paper Professor Greenhill outlined the consequences of both Camaroica and Mariel that were brought to bear again on the Clinton Administration in the 1994 rafter crisis. “It argues that Castro launched the crisis in an attempt to manipulate US fears of another Mariel, and in order to compel a shift in US policy, both on immigration and on a wider variety of issues.

1994 Cuban rafter exodus

The paper further contends that from Castro’s perspective, this exercise in coercion proved a qualified success – his third such successful use of the Cuban people as an asymmetric political weapon against the US. In addition, the paper argues that Castro’s success was predicated on his ability to internationalize his own domestic crisis and transform it into an American domestic political and foreign policy crisis.”

The actions of the Castro regime over the past sixty-three years demonstrate that the dictatorship uses migration as a weapon and has the capability to open migration up or shut it down depending on foreign policy goals and the perceived risk that a hawkish administration may call their bluff or pursue some sort of military action that would endanger the future of the regime. Economic conditions and sanctions are not the determining factors, but rather the ability to obtain additional unilateral concessions from the United States without incurring a negative or military response.

On June 3, 2021 this blog recommended a clear course of action to avert another migration crisis. “Sending a clear message to Havana that another engineered mass migration is viewed as a security threat, raising the cost to the regime playing this game, and backing it up with credible consequences are the best ways to avoid another Mariel or rafter crisis, and protect U.S. interests.”

Professor Greenhill in 2016 gave a presentation with a focus on immigration used as a weapon to destabilize the European Union, but her analysis should be looked at by Cuba policy experts to better understand immigration challenges. She did mention in her presentation that in 1980 the top person in the Carter Administration tasked with tackling the unfolding Mariel crisis did not know that Castro had done this before in 1965 in Camarioca. It is important for policy makers to know their history, and understand how the Castro regime operates to better counter it.

The Washington Post, April 7, 2022

National Security

Cubans arriving in record numbers along Mexico border

By Christine Armario and Nick Miroff

Today at 5:00 a.m. EDT

A Cuban national walks along a road after crossing the Mexico-Texas border at the Rio Grande in September 2021, in Del Rio, Texas. (Julio Cortez/AP)

MIAMI — Cuban migrants are coming to the United States in the highest numbers since the 1980 Mariel boatlift, making their way this time arriving across the U.S. southern land border, not by sea.

Last month, more than 32,000 Cubans were taken into U.S. custody along the Mexico border, double the number who arrived in February, according to unpublished U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) figures obtained by The Washington Post. CBP is on pace to apprehend more than 155,000 Cubans during the current fiscal year, records show, nearly four times the 2021 total and a twelvefold increase over 2020.

Many of the new arrivals are flying to Nicaragua, which dropped its visa requirement for Cubans last fall, then traveling overland to either Del Rio, Tex., or Yuma, Ariz., where they surrender to U.S. border agents to begin the asylum-application process.

Maria Victoria Gonzalez, who arrived in Miami with her husband and two children in January after flying to Nicaragua, described the current exodus from Cuba as “a stampede to Managua,” referring to the Central American country’s capital. “Almost everyone from the younger generations is leaving,” she said.

The Cuban migration boom has been largely overlooked amid a record-breaking overall influx under President Biden. CBP arrests along the southern border reached a record 1.73 million during the 2021 fiscal year, and this year’s total is on pace to be even higher.

The arrival of so many Cubans is straining communities here in South Florida, while acting once more as a release valve for communist authorities facing potential unrest amid the worst economic crisis to grip the island in decades.

Michael Bustamante, a Cuba historian at the University of Miami, said the migration surge puts new pressure on the Biden administration to recast its strategy, having left in place most aspects of the “maximum-pressure” Trump administration approach that tightened U.S. economic sanctions. Street protests that flared in Cuban cities last July were viewed as a vindication of that strategy by former president Donald Trump’s supporters, Bustamante said, but now the tougher sanctions — combined with Cuba’s own economic failures — are supercharging emigration.

“People are getting out of Dodge rather than taking to the streets, which is clear evidence the maximum pressure approach doesn’t work,” Bustamante said. “This is not a win for U.S. policy and not a win for the Cuban people.”

Cubans who cross the border illegally face little risk of being quickly deported or “expelled” under the Title 42 public health law that U.S. authorities used to return thousands of Haitian migrants from a Del Rio camp last September. Cubans fleeing the communist system have long received preferential treatment.

According to preliminary data obtained by The Post, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has only deported 20 Cubans in the past five months, and just 95 during the 2021 fiscal year. Authorities deported 1,583 Cubans in 2020, according to ICE data.

In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said it coordinates with the State Department to hold “regular discussions with partner countries in the Hemisphere on migration related matters” and “continues to engage with foreign governments to improve cooperation with countries that systematically refuse or delay the repatriation of their nationals.” DHS did not respond to questions about specific Cuban government restrictions on the return of Cuban migrants.

About 125,000 Cubans arrived in 1980 during the Mariel boatlift, when the island’s ports and marinas were opened to allow U.S. vessels to pick up anyone wanting to leave. Another 30,000 Cubans reached the United States across the Florida Straits during the 1994 “rafter” crisis.

After that episode, U.S. officials agreed to increase family reunification visas and open a visa lottery system allowing 20,000 Cubans to legally emigrate annually. But those legal pathways were crippled after the State Department removed most consular staff from Cuba in 2017 after the unexplained “health incidents” that became known as Havana syndrome.

Cubans were required to travel to Guyana for visa processing, slowing the entire process and contributing to a large visa backlog.

The U.S. Embassy in Havana said Wednesday it is preparing to restart limited consular services in May, but only for parents of U.S. citizens.

The current volume of migration to the United States far outstrips potential legal pathways. In addition to the flights to Nicaragua, Cubans are also flying there through third countries including Panama. When Panamanian authorities imposed a transit visa requirement for Cuban travelers last month, protesters surrounded the Panamanian Embassy in Havana.

CBP records show about 75 percent of Cubans taken into custody along the Mexico border are adults traveling alone. Some Cubans acknowledge hiring smuggling guides to transport them through Mexico, while others say they rely on social media networks, choosing Del Rio and Yuma for their reputation as relatively safe and easy places to cross.

A smaller number of Cuban migrants, about 750, have reached the United States through other means over the past six months, including one cancer survivor rescued off the Florida Keys in late March on a windsurfing board.

Some Cubans are being released at the border with a form of provisional legal status known as humanitarian parole, but others are being referred to ICE or U.S. immigration courts to face deportation proceedings. U.S. authorities say they issue humanitarian parole on a case-by-case basis, but have not explained how they make those determinations.

Santiago Alpizar, an immigration attorney in South Florida, said he has gotten so many cases in recent months that he is no longer able to see new clients in April. They are recorded as having arrived illegally, meaning they don’t automatically qualify for the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 that allows Cubans to apply for a green card after a year in the United States.

“The majority of my cases now need to apply for asylum,” he said.

Alpizar — who fled by sea in the 1994 crisis — has been writing letters to Cuban American politicians urging them to reinstate the visa lottery as well as the family reunification program. Many of the Cubans heading for Nicaragua have been separated from spouses, children and other close family members for years with little or no access to a U.S. visa application process.

Oasis Peña, a community activist in Miami, said the massive new wave of Cuban arrivals is already putting a strain on agencies that work with migrants. At Integrum Medical Group, where she helps connect Cubans with social services, people begin queuing up the night before to sign up for benefits such as food stamps and legal assistance.

“There are so many people,” she said. “It’s humanly impossible to serve everyone.”

Peña, who arrived in the United States at age 14, has worked with migrants for three decades. “I have never seen this amount of people arriving through the border,” she said.

Gonzalez — who arrived with family in Miami in January — left the island days after Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a longtime ally of the Cuban government, lifted visa requirements.

As a journalism professor in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara, Gonzalez, 36, said she earned the equivalent of around $100 per month. Her husband, an instructor of mechanical engineering, earned less. Their combined income was hardly enough to feed their two children, she said.

Their situation grew more precarious during the coronavirus pandemic, as Cuba’s economy experienced its worst contraction since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Prices soared as Cuba’s leaders implemented a painful currency reform in early 2021. Lines to buy basic goods such as meat and cooking oil stretched for hours. And the government’s repressive response to the July 11, 2021, protests — when authorities handed down lengthy prison sentences — made it clear for many young Cubans that change was unlikely any time soon.

The Nicaragua route finally gave Cubans such as Gonzalez a route that seemed reasonably safe. With the help of her U.S. relatives, the family bought four tickets to Managua at $3,400 each — with demand so high, commercial and charter airlines are gouging travelers, according to migrants.

At the airport in Cuba, Gonzalez said so many people were boarding the flight that there was not a single free seat in the waiting area. Other passengers described selling all of their belongings — including houses and cars — to finance the journeys. Many had paid huge sums to purchase their tickets, with one couple paying $4,500 each.

No one carried heavy suitcases. When the plane finally took off from Cuba, some onboard clapped.

Gonzalez and her family arrived in the middle of the night and checked in at a hotel before embarking on a journey that would take a month to reach the U.S. border. They took buses and taxis, stopping from time to time to rest and figure out their next steps. Gonzalez said they were never stopped or detained by Mexican authorities, nor asked to show their passports.

Along the trip, they told their children — ages 8 and 4 — that they were going to visit their grandfather in the United States, little by little revealing that they were about to embark on a new life.

The last leg of the journey was the one Gonzalez said she remembers most vividly. Though many are crossing at the Rio Grande, Gonzalez had heard stories of people drowning and was too afraid. Instead they decided to cross through the desert in Arizona.

They started around 9 p.m. with a group that swelled to 30 to 40 people. Her 4-year-old son was wearing tennis shoes with flashing lights. Someone told her it’d be best if she took them off, as they might attract attention. It was cold but he’d have to arrive to the United States shoeless. Her husband carried him on her back, while Gonzalez held her daughter’s hand.

Quickly — almost running — they raced toward Yuma.

Within 20 minutes, they were in Arizona, seated on benches next to the border wall. Patrol agents processed them and the other families with children first. They spent the next three days in CBP custody. Then they were released, catching a bus to Phoenix, then a flight to Miami.

Three months later, their daughter is now enrolled in school. They’ve applied for their son to join a prekindergarten program next year. “We know we have to start from zero,” Gonzalez said. “We are aware nothing is easy. But we are full of hope.”

Miroff reported from Washington.