A record number of people are leaving Cuba amid the worst economic crisis since the 1990s

Record numbers of Cubans are fleeing their country as the island suffers its worst socio-economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The number of Cubans attempting to enter the United States, particularly at the Mexican border, rose from 39,000 in 2021 to more than 224,000 in 2022. Many have sold their homes at bargain prices to secure one-way flights to Nicaragua and travel through Mexico to the US to be able to afford US.

Cuba’s 11 million people find themselves in an increasingly desperate situation. Internal migration from the poorer provinces has led to overpopulation in the capital, Havana. Those the government cannot provide a home for live there hostels (precarious abandoned buildings that have been converted into temporary homes). Others live in it solariums (Rental houses), partly in danger of collapsing.

Acute food and medicine shortages are a daily reality in a country plagued by a US trade embargo since 1962 and tight government control of the economy since 1959. The USSR collapsed, leaving the island struggling.

To survive this “special period,” Cuba became dependent on foreign exchange earnings from international tourism and nationals working abroad. Both are now heavily discounted. COVID measures closed the island to foreign tourists, reducing visitor numbers by 75% in 2020.

Construction worker Luis Lázaro with Silemis & Sidelaine, two of his four children in Havana

(James Clifford Kent/The Conversation)

A shop window commemorating the 64th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution reads, “Together we fight in peace and overcome all difficulties.”

(James Clifford Kent/The Conversation)

Untimely currency reforms that unified Cuba’s two currencies triggered an inflationary shock in early 2021. Food shortages have sparked a black market boom.

On a recent trip to Cuba, this article’s co-author James Clifford Kent spoke with locals and took photos. Luis Lázaro, a Havana construction worker, told him: “It got really bad. A complete crisis: food, medicine, clothes. If it’s not one, it’s the other. You work non-stop just to make ends meet, and sometimes that’s not enough.”

As late as 2016, after more than half a century of hostilities, US-Cuban relations came out of the cold. Barack Obama was the first sitting US President to visit the island since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. The Rolling Stones rocked Havana with a free concert.

Packed cruise ships unloaded their passengers in the port of Havana to take them on open-top vintage tours of the capital. Planeloads of foreigners hopped into Havana to soak up the heady atmosphere, with Rihanna, Beyoncé and Jay-Z among the avant-garde of high-profile Western visitors. Private companies flourished and the spirit of optimism was omnipresent.

But Cuba’s economy and its relationship with the United States faltered again after Donald Trump was elected in November 2016, just as the island’s revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, was dying. President Trump has reinstated longstanding travel and business restrictions.

A family relaxes while a neighbor repairs their car in Havana

(James Clifford Kent/The Conversation)

Queuing for dinner at dusk last December

(James Clifford Kent/The Conversation)

Meanwhile, US diplomats and intelligence officers stationed on the island reported hearing loss, headaches and dizziness in a mysterious outbreak of “Havana Syndrome” in late 2016. Washington blamed Cuba and withdrew most of its embassy staff just two years after both governments reopened embassies in their respective capitals had been opened for the first time since 1961.

One of Trump’s last acts before leaving office in January 2021 was to put Cuba back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism and impede its access to international funding. Trump had already limited the remittances Cubans could send to the island.

President Joe Biden has now changed his policy yet again as pressure mounts over increasing illegal migration into the United States. In January 2023, he reopened the US embassy in Havana to visa applications, giving some Cubans an official route to emigrate.

Cuban Resistance

Increased mobile internet access since 2018 and widespread use of social media play a major role in creating a new mood among Cubans. The Economist Intelligence Unit describes their dual impact: Calls for political and economic liberalization and accountability have increased, while US sanctions and support for dissidents have emboldened reform-resistant hardliners.

Living quarters in a Centro Habana Albergue

(James Clifford Kent/The Conversation)

A cat in an abandoned building in Centro Habana

(James Clifford Kent/The Conversation)

Today, despite government restrictions and poor infrastructure, 68% of Cubans have access to the internet. Whatsapp, Instagram and other social networks are used a lot by Cubans, especially young people.

Internet access was key to the Cuban protests of 2021, when local discontent fueled by COVID restrictions and widespread bottlenecks led to street protests that police were quick to quell. Many high-profile artists and Cuban bloggers accused by the government of being funded by the United States have been arrested.

make mass exodus

Ana María, a 52-year-old Cuban mother of two, described how crime and corruption are on the rise. People would rather sell products on the black market than work for a salary that doesn’t cover basic needs, she said.

A mother of two and her dog Blanco pose for a portrait in the doorway of their living quarters at an albergue in Centro Habana

(James Clifford Kent/The Conversation)

A young Cuban and a child are playing in the hallway of an abandoned building

(James Clifford Kent/The Conversation)

A 29-year-old Cuban artist, who asked not to be named, said: “Many of my close friends have joined the rumbo al norte (the route north) in search of socio-economic stability for themselves and their families.”

The famous skill of the Cubans resolver (being resourceful) in the face of immense difficulties reaches its limits. Hope fades quickly.

After six decades of trade blockades and a rigid socialist model, declining living standards have resulted in 2% of the Cuban population leaving the island in just one year.

Many more want to follow them.

Some names have been changed and some sources have asked for anonymity.

James Clifford Kent is Senior Lecturer at Royal Holloway University of London and Christopher Hull is Senior Lecturer in Spanish and Latin American Studies at the University of Chester.

This article first appeared on The conversation.

https://www.independent.co.uk/world/cuba-economic-crisis-immigration-photo-essay-b2297306.html A record number of people are leaving Cuba amid the worst economic crisis since the 1990s


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