BARACOA, Cuba — Roger García Ordaz made no secret of his repeated attempts to flee.
He has attempted to leave Cuba 11 times in boats made of wood, styrofoam and turpentine, and has a tattoo for each failure, including three crashes on the boat and eight visits by the Guard American shores picked up at sea and brought home.
Hundreds of rickety, homemade boats have left the shores of Baracoa, a fishing village west of Havana where García, 34, lives this year – so many locals refer to the town as “Terminal Three” “.
“Of course I’ll keep throwing myself into the sea until I get there,” he said. “Or if the sea wants to take my life, so be it.”
Living conditions in Cuba under Communist rule have long been precarious, but today, worsening poverty and despair has caused the largest wave of emigration from the Caribbean island nation since Fidel Castro came to power more than half a century ago.
The country has been hit hard by tighter US sanctions and the Covid-19 pandemic, which has eliminated one of Cuba’s lifelines – the tourism industry. Food became even scarcer and more expensive, long queues at pharmacies with meager supplies began before dawn and millions suffered hour-long blackouts every day.
In the past year, nearly 250,000 Cubans, more than 2% of the island’s 11 million population, have emigrated to the United States, most reaching the southern border by land, according to the report. goverment American data.
Even for a country known for its mass exodus, the current wave is remarkable — bigger than the 1980 Mariel boat shipment and the 1994 Cuban rafters crisis combined, until recently two of the island’s biggest migration events.
But while those movements peak within a year, experts say the exodus, which they compare to wartime exodus, has no end and threatens the stability of a nation. It already has one of the oldest populations in the hemisphere.
The wave of Cuban departures has also become a challenge for the United States. Now, one of the highest sources of migrants after Mexico, Cuba has become a leading contributor to the migrant rush at the US-Mexico border, which is a major political responsibility for the President. Biden and is what the administration considers a serious national security issue. .
“Cuba’s numbers are historic and everyone recognizes that,” said a senior State Department official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “That said, there are more people migrating globally now than ever before, and that trend is certainly playing out in our hemisphere as well.”
Many experts say US policy towards the island is contributing to the migration crisis that the administration is currently struggling to resolve.
To attract Cuban-American voters in South Florida, the Trump administration scrapped President Barack Obama’s policy of engagement, which included restoring diplomatic relations and increasing tourism to the island. President Donald J. Trump has replaced it with a “maximum pressure” campaign to strengthen sanctions and severely limit the amount of cash Cubans can receive from their families in the United States. States, a major source of income.
“This is not rocket science: If you devastate a country 90 miles from the border with sanctions, people will come to your border in search of economic opportunity,” said Ben Rhodes, who served as deputy national security adviser under the Obama administration and was an informant in negotiations with Cuba.
Although President Biden has begun to withdraw from some of Trump’s policies, he has acted slowly for fear of angering the Cuban diaspora and incurring the wrath of Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat and powerful Cuban-American, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. William M. LeoGrande, a professor at American University who has written extensively on US-Cuba relations, said.
The authorities have also expressed concern about human rights on the island after the Cuban government cracked down on mass protests last year.
“These two reasons – a domestic politics and a foreign policy – reinforce each other,” Mr. LeoGrande said.
While any substantial lifting of the sanctions remains open, the two governments are working to tackle the irregular migration wave.
Washington recently announced that it will restart consular services in Havana in January and issue at least 20,000 visas to Cubans next year under longstanding agreements between the two countries, which officials hopes to discourage some people from trying to make the dangerous journeys to the United States. .
Havana has agreed to continue accepting flights from the United States of deported Cubans, another move aimed at deterring migration. The Biden administration also reversed the limit on the amount of money Cuban-Americans are allowed to send to relatives and authorized a US company to process wire transfers to Cuba.
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The Cuban government has long blamed Washington’s sanctions and a decades-long trade embargo for crippling the country’s economy and driving people off the island. know a law dating back to 1966 that allows most Cubans who meet certain criteria to quickly gain residency. main reason for the increase in migration.
Essentially, the law assumes that all Cubans are political refugees in need of protection, but has been widely criticized for giving them privileges not enjoyed by any other nationality.
But Cuba also has a long history of using migration to remove those it considers disgruntled from the country. As political unrest grows, Fidel Castro will openly pay the price of agitators – he calls them “degenerates” and “worms” – as a good workaround.
About 3,000 people left the port of Camarioca in 1965, and 125,000 left Mariel in 1980. In 1994, street protests led to an exodus of about 35,000 people, who washed ashore. Florida on tubes and rickety ships.
Cuba’s freefall has accelerated due to the pandemic: Over the past three years, Cuba’s financial reserves have dried up, and the country has struggled to stock up on store shelves on shore. Imports – mainly food and fuel – have halved. The situation was so dire that the government utility company boasted this month that electricity service had run continuously that day for 13 hours and 13 minutes.
Last year, fed up with the economic downturn and lack of freedom and lockdown imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, tens of thousands of Cubans took to the streets in the biggest anti-government protests in decades. A crackdown followed, with nearly 700 people still imprisoned, according to a Cuban human rights group.
According to the US Coast Guard, at least 100 people have died at sea since 2020. The Coast Guard has intercepted nearly 3,000 Cubans at sea in the past two months alone.
But today, most Cuban migrants fly off the island, with relatives abroad often paying for airfare, followed by a difficult journey overland. (Cuba lifted the exit visa requirement to leave by air a decade ago, although it is still illegal to leave by sea.)
The floodgates opened last year, when Nicaragua stopped requiring entry visas for Cubans. Tens of thousands of people have sold their homes and belongings to fly to Managua, paying smugglers to help them make the 1,700-mile overland journey to the US border.
Katrin Hansing, an anthropologist at City University of New York who is on a sabbatical on the island, notes that the spike in migration figures do not take into account the thousands of people who have left for other countries, including Serbia. and Russia.
“This is the biggest brain drain in both quantity and quality this country has had since the revolution,” she said. “It’s the best, the brightest, and the most energetic.”
Experts say the departure of many younger, working-age Cubans heralds a bleak demographic future for a country with an average life expectancy of 78 years longer than the rest of the region. . The government can barely afford the meager pension that the country’s aging population relies on.
Elaine Acosta González, a research associate at Florida International University, said it was not “cruel” for Cubans to leave their homeland. “Cuba is shrinking in population.”
Just a few years ago, the future of the country seemed far away. With the Obama administration easing travel restrictions to Cuba, American tourists have pumped dollars into the island’s nascent private sector.
Now, travel is once again severely restricted and years of economic downturn have caused many Cubans to snuff out the last glimmer of optimism.
Joan Cruz Méndez, a taxi driver who tried to leave three times, looks out over the sea in Baracoa and explains why so many of the boats that once lined the town’s shores have disappeared with their owners.
“The last thing you can lose is hope, and I think a large part of the population has lost hope,” said Cruz, recounting how he once crossed 30 miles out to sea only to be forced back, because too many people on board got seasick and vomited.
In March, Mr. Cruz, 41, bought his wife a plane ticket to Panama and used his savings to pay a smuggler $6,000 to take her to the United States, where she is her main asylum seeker. treat. She’s working at an auto parts store in Houston.
In the woods just outside town, people were busy building more boats, removing engines from cars, generators, and lawn mowers.
When the seas calm, they wait for the local Cuban Coast Guard to finish their shift, before carrying the makeshift boats on their shoulders through town and over craggy rocks before gently lowering them into the water.
In May, Yoel Taureaux Duvergel, 32, and his wife, Yanari, who were five months pregnant with their only child, set off with four others in the middle of the night. But their engine broke down. They began rowing, but were stopped by the US Coast Guard just a few miles from the US and sent back to Cuba, where Mr. Taureaux tried to make a living working odd jobs.
When asked why he was trying to leave, he laughed. “You mean why would I want to leave?” he say. “You do not live in Cuba reality?”
He was about to try again. “Once you start, you can’t stop,” he said.
Sitting next to him, 19-year-old Maikol Manuel Infanta Silva sold the family refrigerator to build a sunken boat. Me too, will try again.
By law, he had to serve in the army, but he ran away and tried to make a living by fishing with harpoons.
In Cuba, he said, “things just kept getting worse.”