“Why Cubans leave” by John Suarez | The Hill, January 4, 2022

The Hill, January 4, 2022

Why Cubans leave

by John Suarez, Opinion Contributor – 01/04/23 11:00 AM ET

More than 227,000 Cubans fled Cuba last year. The U.S. Coast Guard reported that 22 migrants died during fiscal 2022. On Dec. 21, Associated Press reporters said that families of Cubans who fled the country during the current exodus had compiled a list of 135 missing relatives.

Havana does not keep track of how many of its citizens are missing. Nor does the Cuban government allow independent actors in Cuba to track the numbers.

Francisco Chaviano González, a former mathematics teacher and political prisoner, attempted to compile a list of Cubans who went missing while trying to flee Cuba. Cuban officials threatened him with arrest and a 15-year prison sentence if he continued to count the number of missing Cubans.

Cuba has experienced a mass exodus over the last six decades, with more than 2.7 million Cubans moving to the U.S. Tens of thousands of Cubans perished while attempting to flee the Castro dictatorship. Some Cuban migrants who attempted to flee were massacred by agents of the Cuban dictatorship.

Between 1959 and December 1991, over 940,000 Cubans fled the Castro regime and entered the United States while Havana received massive subsidies from the Soviet Union. Cuban leader Fidel Castro repeatedly ridiculed the ineffectiveness of the U.S. trade embargo, but changed his tune in 1992 after the USSR collapsed on Christmas Day 1991.

The U.S. embargo on the Cuban government is not the cause of this mass exodus. Cuba’s communist dictatorship is.

In 1993, the Clinton administration in an official note charged that Cuban marine patrols repeatedly tossed grenades, strafed fleeing swimmers with automatic weapons fire and recovered bodies with gaff hooks, within sight of U.S. personnel at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. 

On July 13, 1994, a group of Cuban migrants attempted to flee aboard the “13 de Marzo” tugboat. State Security forces and four Transportation Ministry boats attacked the tugboat seven miles off the coast of Cuba, sinking it. Thirty-seven Cubans were killed, including 11 children.

1995 study by two academics reported that “a total of as many as 100,000 balseros may have died in crossing” the Florida Straits.

The most recent massacre was reported on Oct. 28, 2022. A Cuban Coast Guard ship deliberately collided with and sank a boat near Bahia Honda in Cuba’s Artemisa province. On the ship bound for the U.S., seven Cubans were killed, including a two-year-old girl.

Several other factors are contributing to the ongoing exodus. Some of these also led to the nationwide protests that began on July 11, 2021, and still impact Cuba today.

Havana’s decision not to obtain foreign vaccines for Cubans in order to claim that Cuba was the first country in the world to vaccinate their entire population with homegrown vaccines caused many deaths, and public outrage.

Havana used the pretext of the pandemic to tighten monopoly control over the distribution of assistance with no transparency, and refused to allow farmers markets on the island, increasing scarcity. Now Cubans with hard currency, and who were well off, cannot easily find food and other necessities.

This, combined with the lack of freedom, led to last year’s mass protests across Cuba, but the regime’s response is also contributing to the exodus.

When the protests erupted, President Miguel Diaz-Canel declared in a nationally televised broadcast: “The order to fight has been given — into the street, revolutionaries!” and “They will have to pass over our dead bodies If they want to confront the revolution, and we are willing to do anything.”

Police and paramilitaries shot Cuban protesters. They fatally shot Cuban artist Diubis Laurencio Tejeda in the back. Some witnesses who documented his killing were arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Over a thousand Cubans were jailed for taking part in or recording images of the 11J protests, and the trials continue.

In response to the protests, Havana passed a new penal code in May 2022, which went into effect on Dec 1. Amnesty International referred to it as “a chilling prospect for 2023.” According to the human rights organization, the new code expands the death penalty to 23 crimes and punishes freedom of expression with long prison sentences.

These factors heightened Cubans’ desire to flee, but they do not explain the magnitude of the current exodus.

This exodus benefits the communist dictatorship financially and politically. Nicaragua is a client state of Havana, and it is coordinating with Cuba to weaponize migration to gain concessions from the U.S.

Managua lifted visa requirements for Cubans visiting Nicaragua on Nov. 22, 2021. This new route for Cuban migrants to the United States has exacerbated the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The mass exodus of disgruntled Cubans has strengthened the dictatorship’s grip on the island. Meanwhile, travel agencies affiliated with the communist regime are selling $4,000 plane tickets to Managua, thereby enriching regime oligarchs. In comparison, a slightly longer flight from Miami to Managua costs less than $400.

The Biden administration must demonstrate its support for Cuban democracy, not the dictatorship’s fabricated stability, which amounts to thinly veiled blackmail.

Three steps would be a good start: fully funding Marti Noticias (an international radio and television service funded by the U.S. government that broadcasts in Cuba) so that it can communicate directly with Cubans; applying Magnitsky sanctions on Diaz-Canel for the murderous violence he has inflicted on Cubans; and demanding Havana lift its internal blockade.

Only with these and other changes will the Cuban mass exodus begin to abate.

John Suarez is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba and a human rights activist.