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Cuban officials are hoping to tap into the frenzy over the U.S. “border crisis” to negotiate the lifting of some of the harsher sanctions imposed on the Caribbean nation.
Cuban authorities have been making rounds in the U.S. trying to connect the spike in Cuban migration with the punishing policies enacted during the Trump administration and kept in place under President Joe Biden.
The efforts to ease sanctions are happening as the 2024 election campaign is already underway, making any move on Cuba unlikely, but also after Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a Cuba hard-liner, stepped down as chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations amid bribery and corruption charges, suggesting an opening for Cuban operators.
“The maximum pressure, the extreme measures that they inherited from the government of Trump and some that were taken even during Biden’s government are wreaking havoc on the Cuban population,” Johana Tablada, deputy general director for the U.S. division of Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told NBC News. “That inclusion of Cuba in the terrorism list has a direct link with the wave of migrants that is coming to the United States.”
In 2021, former President Donald Trump’s administration reinstated Cuba to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, reversing former President Barack Obama’s 2015 removal from it, which he did as part of his administration’s efforts to normalize relations with the island. Also on the list are Iran, North Korea and Syria.
Placement on the list translated into heavier sanctions on Cuba, which was already subject to a U.S. embargo on trade, and Cuba officials and other experts say it has had a major impact on the island’s economy.
This financial impact, Tablada said, is part of the push and pulls of migration that currently is causing more Cubans to go to the United States. Officials and critics have said the designation reduced remittances from abroad to Cuba, added to inflation, and cut off sources for credit and capital.
While Biden has softened some of the restrictions, his administration has yet to return to the Obama-era policies on Cuba he said he was willing to restore in his 2020 campaign.
“The U.S. hasn’t been effective in the No. 1 goal of overthrowing the Cuban revolution and the government that they don’t like, but unfortunately and painfully the United States has been very effective in damaging the standard of living in a very short time of the Cuban population … [for]a lot of people — it’s better to leave the country,” Tablada said.
There were 220,908 Customs and Border Protection “encounters” with Cubans from October 2021 to September 2022, which is the 2022 fiscal year. They include encounters with Cubans who have crossed the border illegally, those who entered legally using the CBP One app, those who were exempt from expulsion under previous immigration policy and a small number allowed in through a Biden parole program.
In the 2023 fiscal year, which ran from Oct. 1, 2022, to Sept. 30, 2023, numbers fell to 142,352.
In the 2021 fiscal year, the number was 38,674 and 13,410 in the 2020 fiscal year.
But Coast Guard interceptions of Cubans at sea rose in the first 11 months of the 2023 fiscal year, to a total of 6,967, according to the Migration Policy Institute, MPI, a Washington-based think tank that supports an immigration reform that includes legal migration pathways.
Along with the interceptions of Cubans in fiscal year 2022, these levels of Coast Guard interdictions of Cubans have not been seen since the 1990s, said MPI spokesperson Michelle Mittelstadt.
The current exodus from Cuba is surpassing previous post-Cuba Revolution departures, including the Mariel Boat Lift and Balsero Crisis.
Experts said it’s difficult to establish a direct correlation between the recent increases in Cuban arrivals and the Trump and Biden policies on Cuba, but noted they certainly exacerbated economic and political difficulties in the country.
The Trump administration’s designation of Cuba as a terrorism sponsor in January 2021 — just as Trump was leaving office — came as Cuba was reeling from the blow to tourism and business brought on by the pandemic.
“No region of the world was more affected by the pandemic than Latin America and the Caribbean. The countries have yet to dig out,” said Jorge Duany, director of Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
But other factors are also contributing to the exodus of Cubans from the island, according to Duany, including crackdowns on protesters, increases in Cuban political repression and censorship, and less reliable financial support from Russia, which is diverting resources to its war with Ukraine. “All these things add up to increased migration from Cuba,” Duany said.
Mariakarla Nodarse Venancio, assistant director for Cuba at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group, said the sanctions hinder international transactions with Cuba — both the government and the emerging private sector — because banking is restricted due to its inclusion on the terrorist sponsorship list. Faith-based groups also face obstacles providing humanitarian aid in Cuba, she said.
“We can expect numbers to increase because September numbers showed about 15,000 Cubans reached the U.S.-Mexico border, Nodarse Venancio said. “But if we go down and look at Honduras’ numbers — because they do a good job of reporting — we see 19,000 Cubans in September, which means 5,000 Cubans that haven’t made it to the U.S. yet,” she added.
Also, Cubans can fly to Nicaragua without a visa and from there take one of the multiple daily flights between the countries. “I don’t expect the numbers to go down,” she said.
Biden’s approach to Cuba has been “partial and cautious re-engagement spurred mainly by the migration crisis in Cuba and at the U.S. border,” Ted Henken, an associate professor at Baruch College in New York, told Politifact for a 2022 article on Biden’s progress on his promise to restore engagement with Cuba following Trump’s policies.
The Biden administration included Cuba in a program that allows Cubans to legally enter the country through humanitarian parole, as long as they make appointments through an online app to present themselves at ports of entry rather than cross the border illegally. More than 50,000 Cubans have entered the country that way through the end of September.
Data analysis from Migration Policy Institute shows 79,052 Cubans presented themselves at ports of entry in fiscal year 2023, up from 1,579 in fiscal year 2022.