An unwanted consequence of normalized relations with Cuba

A little over a year after the United States and Cuba began to normalize relations, travel and other restrictions for Cubans and Americans are starting to ease. Reestablishing diplomatic relations after half a century has had positive consequences: the restoration of postal services, direct commercial flights to Havana starting at the end of this year, some Internet access in Cuba’s public wi-fi hot spots, and the ability for travelers to bring Cuban cigars and rum to the United States in limited quantities. However, an unsought consequence of the renewed relationship has become ever more apparent: an increase in Cuban migration to the United States, as the island’s residents rush to beat the rumored end of an American policy that lets Cubans who reach U.S. soil remain here.

Three years ago, President Raúl Castro eased the island’s strict exit visa requirements by allowing most Cubans to travel abroad as long as they had a valid passport and an entry visa, if required by the destination country. Soon after, Ecuador — a Cuban ally — lifted visa requirements for Cubans. This made Ecuador’s capital city of Quito a new gateway out of Cuba and into the United States. Those who could afford a plane ticket could fly to Quito and then make a perilous journey through Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border. This offered an alternative to the traditional method of reaching Florida by boat, an approach that risks interception at sea, and a return to Cuba. Given the dire economic conditions on the island — exacerbated by the decline in oil prices and, therefore, cuts in a generous Venezuelan program that provides subsidized oil — President Castro may have authorized easier-to-obtain exit visas to reduce domestic discontent and put pressure on the United States.

Once the United States began the normalization process and President Obama eased some travel and financial restrictions, the island experienced a 77 percent rise in U.S. visitors last year alone (not including Cuban-Americans). This has benefited Cuba’s small, private-sector network of “casas particulares,” or private homes, which offer restaurants with home-cooked meals and rooms for rent. However, the push factors for migration are still strong for the vast numbers of Cubans who are not involved in the tourism industry: the average salary of a doctor is about $40 a month (up from $25 last year) and a pair of shoes can cost $60, for instance. This reality, combined with the fear that U.S. immigration policy will change — notably, the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans who reach the United States to stay and apply for permanent residence after one year — may explain the 78 percent rise of Cuban immigrants to the United States (PEW), or about 43,159 in fiscal year 2015. Many of these immigrants started their land journey in Ecuador and transited Central America en route to the United States.

Last year, Costa Rica reported a significant increase in undocumented Cubans traveling to the United States through Central America. Approximately 3,000 of them were stranded in Costa Rica when Nicaragua closed its borders last November, denying Cubans transit to the north. Despite several proposals by the Costa Rican government that created a “humanitarian corridor” facilitating safe passage to United States for these migrants, Nicaragua did not change its position. Forced to find another solution, Costa Rica and the other Central American countries (except Nicaragua), started a pilot program in January 2016 to send Cuban migrants by chartered planes to El Salvador. From there they travel by land through Guatemala and Mexico on their way to the United States. The migrants must pay for their plane ticket, which costs approximately $550. The Central American countries have also worked closely with Ecuador, which agreed to reinstate visa requirements for Cubans (effective December 2015) to discourage the flow of Cubans to the United States.

President Obama, who will be in Havana on March 21–22, will be the first sitting U.S. president to travel to Cuba since Calvin Coolidge’s visit over 88 years ago. Although Obama’s trip will probably be no more than ceremonial, the president’s successor should reassess the U.S. government’s “wet-foot dry-foot” policy, which gives Cuban immigrants preferential treatment over those from other countries. This policy encourages Cubans to migrate through illegal and unsafe methods, and is also a source of tension between Cuban and other migrants, especially Central Americans. It goes without saying that any such reassessment will be politically sensitive, as well as extremely complex at a theoretical level. How are the interests of one group of migrants weighed over those of another? How are the claims of Hondurans, who face the highest murder rate in the world (90/100,000) and widespread poverty, balanced against those of Cubans fleeing their own economic hardships and lack of freedom? Yet, as long as our borders are not open, such judgments are unavoidable. The flow of undocumented migrants continues from Cuba, Central America, Mexico and elsewhere. We need to think carefully about any distinctions made among the nationalities of those seeking a better life in the United States.

Erika de la Garza is the program director of the Latin America Initiative at the Baker Institute. Her chief areas of interest include U.S.-Latin American relations, emerging leadership, coalition building between public, private and civil society actors, and trade and business development in Latin America.