While the reasons are obvious to many, Luis Leon breaks down, in detail, how economic crises, the lack of opportunity and restrictions of political rights are pushing Cubans to undertake no-coming-back trips toward different destinations around the world.
Hanser Ramirez why cubans leave
Hanser Ramirez

It’s 3:00 AM in the morning and everyone is speaking loudly. In Las Carpas, there is not enough space to lay down and rest. The toilets collapsed and a dark liquid spread through the floor. It stinks. The food is scarce and awful. At this point, the existence itself seems unbearable. So Hanser is already hesitating about the decision that made him pay thousands of dollars to bring him there.

When he saw himself in that detention center, where immigrants wait for their paroles to enter the US, he could not help but wonder: “What am I doing here?” and, most importantly: “why am I doing this?” His life in Cuba was good. “But good enough,?” he kept wondering. Thoughts are tormenting his head now that he finally made it but all the questions he is asking himself do not have a single answer. That month-long journey through Russia-Mexico-US has put his all existence into perspective and now he just looks back to his old life.

Hanser Ramírez has always been a hardworking Cuban boy from Trinidad who has had nothing but a life of celebration. Always smiling, irradiating a positive vibe to his close circle of family, friends and colleagues, he soon learned how to be a leader in every aspect of his life. He has been everything from a short-term celebrity in Mexico to an environmental activist that revolutionized eco-friendly behaviors in his hometown – a guy who touched the hearts of hundreds of young people and established bonds between the private market and state-owned institutions and companies.  An entrepreneur. 

A No-Return Trip

“Leaving the country is something cultural. Your close circle of friends, family, classmates… heavily influences that decision,” Ysabel Muñoz Martinez, a young intellectual who is building a life in the cold and distant Norway, tells me. 

“If you stay, then you are kind of punished by your generation because deep inside it feels like a failure. It should not be that way, because reality is not in black and white but that’s how many people see it,”she regrets. 

Ysabel Hanser why cubans leave
Ysabel Hanser helping the environment.

To her, the reasons to migrate are many and may vary from person to person, but, professional realization, economic guarantees (transportation, housing, goods and services, food), helping their families, ensuring a better future for their children and, most importantly, individual liberties are common in people´s mind when asked about their motivations. 

All the reasons to leave Cuba are valid and all the reasons to stay too.

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In a highly educated country like Cuba , young professionals are especially interested in finding a career somewhere else. The youth sees it as ironic how the government ensures a high level of education and the job market is, to the least, very unpleasant considering the low salaries and the scarce chances to succeed on your own. That’s why getting a scholarship to study abroad is a common path for many Cuban students. 

Muñoz, who was selected in 2020 as a Chevening scholar to undertake a master’s degree in Glasgow, UK, points out the attractiveness of this way of escape: “Imagine to be in a prestigious university and, on top of that, being paid for it”. The independent platform Diario de Cuba, in a story published in 2019, stated that Mexico, Spain, and some other countries in Europe are the main hosts for Cuban students.

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“But there’s a time in which we all thought we could achieve something in Cuba,” argues Muñoz, who is currently part of a PhD program. “We dreamt about finding a job that allowed us to accomplish at least something, as in my case it is to bring nature and literature together. And we dreamt about making a living off it. Many of us ended up frustrated, and that’s why scholarships are important, because it is not only a way to continue our studies abroad but a form of filling a gap in our personal budget”.

And the most secure starting point when you arrive in a new culturally-distant land. 

trinidad cuba snorkeling
Proyecto Tú también puedes ayudar con snorkelling.

Ysabel and Hanser used to work together in a project aimed at cleaning the beaches of Trinidad city. “You can also help with snorkeling,” impacted the youth significantly. Both of them worked closely to leave a footprint in their society because they felt it was the right thing to do. A footprint that was not exempt from difficulties. “You can’t do anything out of the scope of the government and that’s why the project was investigated when they saw that we were becoming bigger,” says Ramírez, founder of the initiative. ´

As he did not care about anything but cleaning beaches, he decided to make concessions and managed to create bonds between certain state institutions and the private sector.

A Historical Issue

The current crisis in Cuba has triggered a new wave of migration. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), cited by the Center of Democracy in Americas, nearly 180,000 Cubans have attempted entrance into the US in the fiscal year of 2022, which is equivalent to over 1% of Cuba’s population, surpassing the two largest waves known as Mariel and Balseros. Only in July about 20,000 people sought to migrate to the U.S.

The impact of the Pandemic on the tourism industry, the inflation derived from the so-called “Tarea Ordenamiento”, the inefficiency of the state production system and the low speed of the economic reforms – and the undeniable effects of the Embargo – have taken the living conditions in Cuba to the lowest levels in the past two decades. Within the Caribbean island, people joke  about it: “This is Periodo Especial 2.0”. But the joke is in fact serious as getting the basics for everyday life has turned more and more difficult and has pushed the people of any origins to flee the country in the most dangerous ways. 

The phenomenon, nonetheless, is historical. 

Cubans have been going to the US, their main host country, ever since 1850 due to economic, social & political reasons. The latter was exacerbated after the revolution in 1959 since Fidel Castro’s government had an immediate anti-wealthy class policy which evolved to a communist and Soviet-inspired system that, for instance, expropriated private properties and made thousands of Cubans leave for other lands. The US responded by imposing a long-lasting economic embargo over the Island and passing laws that make immigration easy for us. However, the history of migration between the two countries has turned harsh, tense and full of sorrow in which  migration has turned into a problematic phenomenon. 

The migration from Cuba to the US is characterized by waves, according to Antonio Aja, head of Demographic Studies Center of University of Havana, in  research that pretty much takes out the Cuban government’s responsibility. If we take a look at the composition of Cubans inside the US after 1990, we observe that they are eminently white at about 82%. According to this research, most of them correspond to the first and second generation of the Cubans who were forced to leave shortly after 1959. After 2000, however, as shown in a study published in 2016 in Migraciones Internacionales Journal, the composition of the Cuban American community has turned into a “new migration” and is characterized by being more diverse in their economic and ethnic origins as well as in their motivations to migrate.   

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The Cuban Adjustment Act has historically benefited the legal status of Cubans since 1965 and situates us in a privileged position in comparison to other immigrants of Hispanic origins: we receive permanent residence after one year and one day of living on American soil. The dry feet/wet feet policy exacerbated the illegal migration of Cubans until 2016, when it was abolished by Obama’s administration. It is well known the cost of many of these waves,with the Mariel crisis in 1984 and the Balseros in 1994.

In addition to the US, Cubans search for other destinations. Other specific events have triggered waves, as is the case of Ecuador, with its peak between 2009 and 2015, that allowed Cuban professionals to enter without visa and receive legal status in the Andean country. The Historical Memory Law made the second generation of Spanish expats claim their citizenships from 2007 onwards. This benefited  more than 150,000 Cubans, according to España Exterior. The current migration crisis is breaking historical records.

Individual Liberties 

In 2009, Andrés Carrillo, born in Remedios, had tasted all the ways in which a Cuban citizen can be an entrepreneur. Being a kid, he used to bike several kilometers away from home to find fresh annonas to sell on the streets. Later on, he helped his dad in the dulcería of the family, then was a bartender at a resort and finally established, along with his family, one of the most successful BnB´s of his hometown. His income was much higher than the average Cuban. That year, however, he got most of the money he had gathered to pay a coyote to take him to the US. 

“It was not as popular as it is nowadays but that way of going to the US was already happening. I flew to Venezuela as a tourist and then to Mexico in order to reach the border, where I was received after showing my Cuban ID,” he recalls.

cortaditos new jersey
Cortaditos in Northern New Jersey.

He left behind his family and his business to start from zero: working in the construction field, which he remembers with complaint, and starting a new education that, according to him, became the highlight of his new life. Andres graduated in business and administration and soon started the construction of a business that rapidly succeeded. “Cortaditos” is the name of the family brand that has four  coffee places in New Jersey and is on its way to be expanded. 

“If I had stayed, I wouldn´t have achieved the things I´ve done here. I would be an entrepreneur but not at the same scale I wished for and I would´ve had to deal with all the restrictions imposed on us; and the bureaucracy”.

What makes entrepreneurs often realize there is no choice but to leave is usually the lack of recognition and the prejudices that the government still has on them. In general, the relationship between the government and the private sector is tense despite the increasing concessions that the government has been making. Even when the 2019 constitution recognised private properties and small and medium companies, new laws seem to restrict the opportunities of growth. On top of that, the current economic crisis prevents small startups from access to essential resources. 

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Carrillo adds more issues: “I realized that no matter how independent your work can be, you are always under the government’s eye. My parents tried it all and still had to worry about authorities calculating their earnings. In general, their work did not only depend on what they could do but what the government allowed”.

Regarding this, Andres remembers with sorrow when he was arrested for hosting tourists at his home prior to the legalization of this activity as a private business.  The authorities never found him guilty, but still imposed a fine of four hundred  dollars on him, an amount of money which was considered a fortune at the time.  

After 1994, hosting tourists by natural Cuban citizens was finally approved by the Cuban authorities.

Economic Issue Is a Political Issue

One of the main debates about migration in Cuba is whether the reasons are economic or political. Yes, periodic crises trigger migration waves, as is currently happening. But the continuous reports of human right violations on national soil also force thousands of Cubans to abandon the country every year. 

“Everybody knows that we can aspire to a better life abroad,” Carrillo tells me.  “Even in the better years of the revolution, people understood that. In most cases, Cubans come back to visit their country and reveal an improvement, real or fake, that triggers a wish to follow their peers”.

The official narrative tends to minimize the impact of the political reasons, arguing that the American Embargo is the main responsible for it. But the excuse doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and has been proven wrong many times, even if the motivation behind an illegal trip is just only to have the iPhone of the year. Otherwise, why do so many people spend life-time savings crossing Central America? Why go through such a life-threatening journey? As the official Cuban media outlet Alma Mater, referring to this topic, dared to acknowledge: “Economic problems are political problems…Migration is a political issue as well as its causes.” 

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After all, thousands of Cuban people feel the need to leave the country under any circumstances; be it finding a scholarship to continue a professional career or paying a coyote that takes them throughout a jungle in Nicaragua. These are not the only ways: marrying a foreigner, asking for political asylum, getting on a made-up boat on the Florida straits, also count.

“You might be involved in politics or not, but the fact that people witness punishment on everyone who dares to protest, or to associate, creates a lot of frustration. We cannot pretend that our society is that homogenous,” points out Ysabel Muñoz. “I blame the political system for creating a generation whose biggest aspiration in life, in many cases, is to migrate,” she laments . 

“My fellow young Cubans leave because they aspire to a better life that was denied to them. A life in which you don’t have to worry about water supply, electricity cuts or what to have for breakfast,” Hanser Ramírez tells me while he rests his back after a long day working in the construction field. Settling has been difficult for him. He has been a janitor in a school “where I almost break my back” and now is waiting for a job in a factory. 

Hanser has lost a few pounds in the process of adaptation. “It is harder than what I could ever imagine but a winner never quits on himself”.  He sometimes feels homesick, and more than once thinks of returning to his old life. But his old life is already gone. “I live in the present,” he remarks with the same positive energy. “My plans are to take the advantages that this country offers, to study, to earn some money, to help my family and to go back to helping the environment.” Hanser never thought of giving up on any of his goals.

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Luis Orlando León Carpio is a Cuban journalist living in Denmark and Czech Republic, where he is completing a master's degree in Journalism, Media and Globalization as an Erasmus scholar. He has worked as a reporter, editor and content producer for Vanguardia newspaper and Tornapunta magazine in his hometown, Trinidad. He has also contributed as a freelancer at El Toque, OnCuba & Tremenda Nota among other international publications. Telling the right stories, no matter what they are about, is the way he finds to make the world a little bit better. He holds a BA in Journalism from the Universidad Central Marta Abreu de Las Villas in Santa Clara, Cuba. Fun fact: he also loves to sing!

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