Amid one of the worst economic and political crises since the late Fidel Castro turned Cuba into a communist country over 60 years ago, the island has lost almost 4 percent of its population in the past two years.
These Cubans are now in the United States.
Nearly 425,000 Cubans have come in the past two fiscal years, according to the latest U.S. border numbers, a migration crisis of historic proportions that underscores the challenges the Biden administration faces in trying to contain the displacement set in motion by authoritarian governments and political upheavals in the Western Hemisphere.
The population of Cuba stood at 11,113,215 by the end of December 2021, according to Cuban government statistics. The alarming wave of migration over the past two years is akin to a scenario where all the residents of the central province of Cienfuegos packed up and abandoned the island.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 200,287 encounters with Cubans at U.S. borders nationwide in fiscal year 2023, which ended in September. In fiscal year 2022, CBP had reported another 224,607 encounters with Cuban nationals.
While the number of Cuban migrants has soared to levels only compared to the exodus unleashed by the revolution led by Castro in 1959, migrants from Venezuela, Nicaragua and Haiti have also reached record levels. In the past two fiscal years, just over a million people from those three countries (1,048,140) also reached U.S. borders. Most were able to stay.
A major earthquake, the murder of President Jovenel Moïse, gang blockades and violence, and a wave of kidnappings have deteriorated living conditions in Haiti. In Cuba and Venezuela, insufficient healthcare, food shortages, frequent power blackouts, and repressive governments have sparked a mass exodus out of the two countries. Along with the rest of the region, they have also struggled to manage the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic and health aftermath.
Venezuela alone is the source of the largest displacement of people in the history of the Western Hemisphere, with over seven million people fleeing the humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations.
Some of the people reflected in the U.S. border data have come legally as beneficiaries of the Biden administration parole programs that allow citizens from the four countries to come here for a two-year period as long as they pass health and background checks, among other requirements. Over 241,000 people have arrived in the United States in the last fiscal year using these programs, including over 50,000 Cubans, more than 85,000 Haitians, over 38,000 Nicaraguans, and over 66,000 Venezuelans.
Most are coming to the United States through the Miami airport, the federal data shows.
But those coming through the Biden parole program still make up a fraction of the total number of migrants coming from those four countries, which is at historic levels.
The end-of-year border figures also show that tough policies embraced by the Biden administration, such as resuming deportations to some of these countries in turmoil, have yet to make a significant impact.
In response to a federal lawsuit challenging the parole programs, the Department of Homeland Security has argued that the “significant increase” of migrants from these four countries has “at times strained DHS’s operational capacity” at the southwest border during the last two years.
“This increase has been especially challenging because it is difficult for DHS to remove [them] to their home countries,” DHS wrote.
Homeland Security has defended the new parole program as a way to get Mexico to accept returned nationals of these four countries at the border. The agency warned that if a judge ends the program, Mexico would “almost certainly” stop accepting these deportees. In its attempt to curb irregular migration, Homeland Security took other controversial steps and resumed direct deportation flights to Cuba and Venezuela.
“For the first time, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is able to repatriate Venezuelan nationals back to their home country for those who do not have a legal basis to remain in the United States,” ICE Deputy Director and Senior Official Patrick J. Lechleitner said Tuesday. “This is a tremendous step forward in the agency’s ability to strengthen consequences for migrants who cross our border unlawfully.”
The Biden administration is also working diplomatically to address some of the root causes of this unprecedented wave of migrants coming from those four countries.
U.S officials conducted secret negotiations that recently ended with a deal to partially lift U.S. sanctions on Venezuela in exchange for commitments by the government of Nicolas Maduro to allow free and fair elections in Venezuela.
The U.S. government actively worked to get approval for a U.N. resolution it drafted to authorize a one-year deployment of a multinational armed force to Haiti, with the hope of controlling the spiraling gang violence that is worsening the humanitarian crisis in the Caribbean nation.
Administration officials are also set to meet with their Cuban counterparts in Havana on Nov. 14 to discuss the implementation of the U.S.-Cuba Migration Accords, a series of bilateral agreements that date back to 1984, a State Department spokesperson said.
These talks, held twice a year, “are consistent with our interest in fostering family reunification and promoting greater respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba,” the spokesperson said.
“Ensuring safe, orderly, humane, and regular migration between Cuba and the United States remains a primary objective of the United States,” the official said.
In a recent gathering of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Mexico hosted by the Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Cuba’s handpicked president Miguel Díaz-Canel blamed U.S. sanctions for the migration crisis, though experts mention the country’s failing economic policies and increased repression of critics as playing a major role. The participating countries, which included Haiti, Venezuela, and Honduras, issued a joint statement that, among other things, proposed a dialogue between Cuba and the United States as soon as possible about their bilateral relationship.
Biden is also hosting a larger gathering of countries from across the Western Hemisphere to a summit early next month in Washington D.C., that is focused on eradicating the root causes of migration as well as fostering economic development in the region.
The International Organization for Migration said last month that “regional action” is “essential” as unprecedented numbers of migrants are moving through Mexico and Central America.
“The challenges of migration are too vast for any nation in the Americas to tackle alone,” said Marcelo Pisani, IOM’s Regional Director for South America.