As President Obama visits Cuba and thousands of Americans on a weekly basis tour the island nation it is easy to forget that whatever promise the new American engagement may mean Cubans by the hundreds are getting out while they can. Sadly the steady exodus is often headlined, as it was this week, by tragedy.
On Friday, two days before the President’s Havana arrival and 16 months after Obama initiated a change in Cuba policy, a cruise ship rescued 18 Cuban severely dehydrated migrants off the west coast of Florida. The survivors reported that nine others had died in the Straits of Florida during 22 days on the water. It is a story that is not uncommon in South Florida.
Earlier in the week eight Cuban migrants landed on the ocean side of Tavernier in the Florida Keys part of the continuing wave of immigration coming from the island nation.
Cubans are arriving in record numbers along the Texas Mexico border as that overland path to the U.S. continues to provide the most practical yet rugged and challenging route to the American ports of entry. Customs and Border Protection figures show that between 2005 and 2011, an average of 10,000 Cubans a year entered the U.S. From October 2013 to December 2015, more than 80,000 arrived at U.S. entry points. Most entered the U.S. through the Port of Laredo, Texas where an average of 120 Cubans arrive daily.
The thawing of tensions between the U.S. government and Cuba’s communist Castro regime has Cubans worried their automatic refugee status, called the “Cuban Adjustment Act” is at risk. Fear that the policy, due to the warming relations, could change has generated an increase in Cubans trying to come to the U.S. According to the Border Patrol, 43,159 Cubans entered the states by either sea or by land through Mexico in fiscal year 2015. In the fiscal year 2011, 7,759 Cubans migrated to the United States.
So, besides a potential status change, why are Cubans leaving when the Obama initiatives are driving an influx of tourist dollars, which might trickle down to the locals and the prospect of American business investment might mean employment opportunities? “I don’t think things are going to improve here,” said Rosa Lopez, 52-year-old Havana food stand worker told the Associated press.
The Cuban exodus not only has impact in Texas and South Florida it has spread across the nation. For example The Louisville Courier-Journal reports that Louisville’s foreign-born Cuban population nearly doubled to 7,130 between five-year Census averages reported in 2009 and 2014. More recent state data shows Cuban arrivals, numbering 578 in 2012, jumped to 1,115 in 2015 – and may reach 1,600 in 2016. Cubans are now poised to surpass Mexicans as the city’s largest foreign-born population.
The question is will the Obama visit and engagement with Cuba make a difference? Will the prospect of economic hope stem the tide of refugees streaming out of Cuba? The Cuban government has an answer to both questions. According to Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez who has been at the center of the U.S. and Cuban talks, “In our relations with the United States, the carrying out of internal changes in Cuba are absolutely off the negotiating table.”As far as the Obama Administration’s push for more democracy and and economic change Rodriguez says, “No one can pretend that Cuba should renounce a single principle in order to advance the normalization of relations between both countries.” Meanwhile Cubans continue to arrive at the Texas border and it only a matter of time before The U.S. Coast Guard picks up the next group of Cuban rafters or fortunate refugees will land in the Florida Straits.