CubaBrief: US and Cuban officials to hold talks amid tensions over migration. Will Havana again be rewarded for weaponizing migration?

Cuban migrants forced back to Mexico by U.S. – Los Angeles Times

Havana’s argument presented in The Guardian article below collapses when the historical record is examined.

During President Obama’s detente with General Raul Castro 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 to the Castro regime. 

Secondly, tougher sanctions began to be put in place in 2017, but migration from Cuba during the Trump Administration returned to the lower pre-normalization levels of 2011

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.

Cuban migration began to rise during the early days of the Biden Administration and was drawing press scrutiny in April 2021. In mid July 2021, Senator Marco Rubio warned of a Mariel-style crisis after the 11J protests in Cuba.

The Afghanistan pullout completed on August 30, 2021, and signaling Putin that he could make a minor incursion into Ukraine without serious repercussions, in early 2022 may have all sent a green light to Havana that they could further intensify the migration crisis with the belief that they could leverage additional concessions from the Biden Administration

The influx dramatically increased with Cubans traveling through Nicaragua in the last month of 2021.  In late November 2021, days after the United States condemned Cuban-ally Daniel Ortega for stealing the Nicaraguan presidential election on November 7, 2021, Managua lifted visa requirements on Cubans entering the country, creating a new and larger channel for an exodus. 

Havana’s tactic against Washington is explained in 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.” (Please let us know if you need a copy.)

Castro regime actions over the past 63 years demonstrate that Havana 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 action that would endanger the regime’s future, or negatively impact the dictatorship internationally. Economic conditions and sanctions are not the determining factors in generating a migration crisis. It is the ability to obtain unilateral concessions from the United States without incurring a negative response.

Will Havana again be rewarded for weaponizing migration?

The Guardian, April 18, 2022

US and Cuban officials to hold talks amid tensions over migration

Cuba says US sanctions and decision to close American consular section in Havana encourage Cubans to seek riskier routes to US

The United States wants Cuba to take back more deportees arriving at the US-Mexico border, a US official said. Photograph: José Luis González/Reuters

American and Cuban officials are due to meet in Washington on Thursday to discuss migration concerns, people familiar with the matter said, in the highest-level formal US talks with Havana since Joe Biden took office last year.

The meeting comes at a time when Biden’s administration is grappling with rising numbers of undocumented migrants attempting to cross the US border from Mexico, with Cubans making up a growing portion of them.

Tensions between Washington and Havana over the Cuban government’s crackdown on protests, continuing American sanctions on the communist-ruled island and other issues have made it difficult for the countries to cooperate on challenges such as irregular migration.

Leading the Cuban delegation will be the deputy foreign minister, Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, two sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The delegation is expected to meet with senior officials of the US state department and other agencies.

The US wants Cuba to take back more deportees from among the record numbers of Cubans arriving at the US-Mexico border, according to a US official and another source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Cuba has said it supports legal, orderly and safe migration. It blames the US for the uptick in irregular migration, saying cold war-era sanctions and a decision to close the American consular section in Havana encourage Cubans to seek riskier routes to leave the island.

The state department last month said it would again begin processing some visas for Cubans in Havana to start reducing the backlog after a four-year hiatus, but progress has been slow.

“We have seen a significant increase in irregular Cuban migrants to the United States, both via land and maritime routes,” a state department spokesperson said. “Cubans currently rank the second-largest group arriving to the United States’ south-west border.”

The spokesperson, who asked not to be named, declined to confirm the planned meeting but said “we regularly engage with Cuban officials on issues of importance to the US government, such as human rights and migration”.

Thursday’s planned talks appear to be at a higher level than known formal contacts since Biden took office in January 2021.

The Cuban government did not immediately respond to questions seeking comment.

The talks are scheduled to be held just a day after the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and regional counterparts are due to wrap up a conference on migration in Panama. Cuba is not due to attend that conference.

A record number of migrants attempted to cross the US-Mexican border during Biden’s first year in office. American officials are preparing for even higher numbers this year.

Amid Cuba’s faltering economy, after Nicaragua lifted visa requirements for Cubans in November, many dropped everything, sold their homes and took a flight for Managua, with hopes of heading north through Central America to the US.

Nicaragua, a close regional ally of Cuba, said the move was intended to promote commercial exchange, tourism and humanitarian family relations.

Initial fervor has been followed by frustration as the US has undertaken a regional effort to curb border crossings.

The number of Cubans apprehended at the US-Mexico border reached 16,531 in February, the highest single-month total on record, according to US Customs and Border Protection data.

Even as Washington and Havana prepare to re-engage on migration, Biden administration officials are mindful that any easing of restrictions on Cuba could lead to political fallout from conservative Cuban Americans, a key voting bloc in south Florida.

Donald Trump rolled back a historic rapprochement that his predecessor Barack Obama oversaw between the US and its old cold war foe.