Risking their lives to leave: Record surge in Cubans seeking safe haven in the US

The past seven months has seen a sharp increase of Cubans fleeing their homeland with more than 115,000 crossing into the US via a string of Latin American countries and in the process running the gauntlet of dangerous cartels and perilous conditions.

Three migrants from Cuba stand oil front of a National Guardsman after crossing the Rio Grande river in Eagle Pass, Texas.

Three migrants from Cuba stand oil front of a National Guardsman after crossing the Rio Grande river in Eagle Pass, Texas. Source: AP

  • Over the past seven months, nearly 115,000 Cubans have entered the US illegally by crossing the borders of different Latin American countries.
  • According to senior US officials, about 150,000 Cuban migrants are expected to arrive this year, which would exceed the figures recorded during the famous Mariel exodus, when, in 1980, 125,000 Cubans emigrated to the US.
  • Although most migrants hope to reach the US, there are also significant waves of Cuban migrants who want to enter European, Asian and African countries.
Cubans have once again made headlines in the international press, as many set off on perilous journeys either by land or sea in a bid to flee the troubled island nation.

This comes in the wake of the  from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico after being trapped inside a sweltering tractor-trailer truck found abandoned in San Antonio, Texas.

Police and paramedics descend on the scene of a tractor-trailer in San Antonio, Texas, where 53 illegal migrants from Central and South America died.
A nine-year-old has been taken to the Sydney Children's Hospital after suffering gunshot injuries. Source: AP Photo/Eric Gay

The driver, along with two other men from Mexico, remain in custody as an investigation continues into the tragic discovery in late June 2022 which has become the US's deadliest smuggling episode at the Mexico border.

Those who have emigrated from Cuba have told SBS Spanish that, despite such horrors, they preferred the risk of death to continuing to subsist in a "hopeless" way, in a country whose precarious socio-economic situation has been aggravated by the pandemic and soaring inflation.

The Facebook pages of Cuban users are full of the stories of those who try to escape.

"A brother of mine and his young daughter are currently making their way through Central America - in vans, on buses, on horseback, on foot, through densely forested river areas,” says a Cuban whose name is suppressed for security reasons.

He remembered the movie Life is Beautiful and told his daughter that they were in a game and that in the end, a dollhouse awaited her as a prize.
Unfortunately, this story is replicated in the thousands of Cubans unable to bear conditions at home.

Cuba and the US have, as far as emigration is concerned, a shared history of more than two centuries.

The phenomenon gained a special dynamism after the 1959 revolution which was consolidated in 1980 with the and intensified again in the 1990s with the crisis of the "rafters", which involved Cubans attempting to cross to the US with makeshift boats.

The migratory waves would intensify again in 2015 to 2017. However, recent events look set to eclipse these past attempts.

“My decision to leave Cuba was because of economic problems, but at the same time, also because of political problems,” a Cuban migrant told SBS Spanish.

A United States Border Patrol agent on horseback uses the reins to try and stop a migrant from entering an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande in Texas.
A United States Border Patrol agent on horseback tries to stop a migrant from entering an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande in Texas. Source: AFP
Among the deepest causes of the current uptick in those escaping Cuba is what they call the “pauperisation of Cuban life”, the lack of opportunities for social mobility and a chaotic socioeconomic situation.

According to Cuban journalists and economic analysts who write for alternative digital journalism platforms such as  and , the measures adopted in 2020 by the Cuban government with the .

However, the official version of the Cuban government is at odds with this view, stating instead that

In an article in the newspaper , Deputy Prime Minister and Head of Economy and Planning for Cuba, Alejandro Gil Fernández, claims that the Cuban economy grew in the first quarter of 2022, experiencing "a growth of US$162 million compared to the same period in the previous year,” although other .

However, Cubans in exile say many citizens struggle to live with the lack of basic services and food security.

A Cuban migrant living in Australia said people faced shortages of essential items everyday, including food, water and even electricity.

She said everyday people are forced to stand in long queues just to buy the essentials.

Another Cuban, who now lives in the US, added that many Cubans did not identify with the “obsolete archaic and totalitarian communism that has nothing to do with progress or with the development of human beings".

Within the Caribbean island, growing popular discontent has spilled out on to the streets, as evidenced in the protests that took place in July, 2021, the first of their kind in the country since the 1959 revolution which swept Fidel Castro to power.

A man injured in the eye is seen during a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana, on 11 July, 2021.
A man injured in the eye is seen during a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana, on 11 July, 2021. Source: AFP

According to Cubans who spoke to SBS Spanish, the country urgently needs economic and political change so that it can meet the most pressing needs and the growing democratic aspirations of some of its citizens.

Without this, many Cubans are opting to emigrate to any part of the world where their freedom is respected.

Emigration in 2021-2022: A different exodus

The current exodus represents a record wave of migration that is unprecedented, both in terms of the volume of migrants, the diversity of age and social groups, as well as by the number of borders that Cubans are willing to cross to reach the main destination: the US.

One Cuban migrant said he had to “pay a fortune” amounting to around US$20,000 to be able to leave Cuba.

You must also pay the 'coyote' or smuggler who is the person who moves you from Nicaragua to the border of the United States of America.
Between November 2021 and February 2022, nearly 40,000 Cubans arrived at the US southern border, according to US Customs and Border Protection data.

Since the end of 2021, thousands of Cubans have chosen to emigrate via Nicaragua, after President Daniel Ortega lifted visa requirements.

Cuban migrants charge their phones in a shelter in Costa Rica.
Cuban migrants charge their phones at a temporary shelter in a school in the town of La Cruz, Costa Rica. Source: AAP

Once in Nicaragua, Cubans cross the borders of neighbouring states through different routes, guided by human traffickers, known as 'coyotes', who charge exorbitant sums of money to assist in the process.

During this ordeal, which can last weeks or even months, Cuban women, children, the elderly, men and young people walk thousands of kilometres, with almost no luggage.

They cross rushing rivers and dense jungles, all the while exposing themselves to crime, mafia groups, drug-trafficking cartels, violent gangs and countless other risks imposed by the current COVID-19 pandemic and the political tensions that characterize some of the countries through which they need to pass.

A young Cuban, whom we will call “Claudio” for security reasons, and who recently arrived in the US illegally, detailed his perilous journey to SBS Spanish.

Claudio says that in Honduras, the group he was traveling with was ambushed by police on their way to Tegucigalpa.

When he crossed through Guatemala, in the Huehuetenango area, they were again almost caught by police.

He said that after hiding for hours, the 'coyotes' finally convinced the police to let them through by paying them US$50 for each person they let through.

Once in Mexican territory, the group of illegal migrants went from the state of Chiapas to Puebla, and from Puebla to Monterrey, in vans called “trocas”.

A damaged truck stands on the street after a gun battle between Mexican security forces and suspected cartel gunmen, in Villa Union, Mexico
A damaged truck stands on the street after a gun battle between Mexican security forces and suspected cartel gunmen, in Villa Union, Mexico Source: AAP

In Mexico, Claudio said he and his group spent 18 hours lying in the back of several pickup trucks, under the inclement Mexican sun. The conditions were such that they could not move, eat or drink anything, he said.

We crossed the border through a part of the river, near an area called Mier City that is a ghost town, full of wineries where people are trafficked.
In Monterrey, the 'coyotes' handed them over to a Mexican cartel who would become the guides for the rest of their journey.

According to Claudio, it was extremely difficult to move surrounded by mobsters with assault rifles in a difficult terrain full of dangers. It was difficult also to know that his life depended entirely on them, he said.

Just a few minutes after crossing the river that lead to the US border, they were, once again, about to be intercepted by Mexican police.

However, fortunately, the Mexican police force, which Claudio considers "the most corrupt on the planet" let them pass, after a brief chat with members of the cartel who handed over payments.

"The river at eleven o'clock, almost twelve o'clock at night, is a black river with a strong current. There were people with children, a family from Matanzas who were walking with their little girl of 4 years, all kinds of people trying to cross," he said. 

Migrants wait on the Rio Grande to cross to the United States, in Ciudad Acuna, Coahuila state, Mexico, 18 September 2021.
Migrants wait on the Rio Grande to cross to the United States, in Ciudad Acuna, Coahuila state, Mexico, 18 September 2021. Source: AAP

"The boat sometimes had to be pulled because there was so much current that it felt like it could turn. And so, after 15 minutes on the boat, sailing upstream, we finally arrived in the United States and surrendered," Claudio said.

"I was detained for 30 hours and there were 55 of us in one prison cell: Nicaraguans, Hondurans, Guatemalans... Many of them with deportation orders and I, thanks to a gentleman, after 30 hours in detention, got on a bus bound for Brownfield, Texas."

But there are also many Cubans who have literally thrown themselves into the sea with the hope of reaching US shores. Florida's southern coast is about 144kms from Cuba.

As an example, Elián López Cabrera arrived in the US on March 23 on a windsurfer however others haven't been as lucky. Talented Cuban DJ Ernesto Hidalgo Mariño, known as TIKO, lost his life trying to swim to the US.

Although most Cubans who emigrate intend to reach the US as their final destination, there are also waves of Cubans stranded in European, Asian or African countries.

Stories on social media sites reveal Cubans are also trapped in border towns impacted by war, as is the current case with the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

Many Cuban emigrants have been stranded on the borders of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine, without documents or financial support, increasing their vulnerability in the face of war and the cultural and linguistic barrier.

There are also some Cubans who dared to emigrate to the other side of the planet on the land of "the kangaroos". Although far from the home, the relatively small Cuban community in Australia, is not immune to the migration crisis that is unfolding on their beloved island.

Ledian Pardo, who has made Australia his new home, says he feels the enormous pain of seeing his country divided between those who have left and those who have stayed.

Cubans who live outside the country feel a lot of pain knowing that their families are scattered throughout the world. I have family in Europe, I have family in Ecuador, I have family in Panama, obviously I have family in Miami and I have family in Cuba.
Like so many other Cubans living in Australia today, Ledian Pardo said he was also deeply concerned for those relatives, friends and acquaintances who are about to embark on dangerous illegal journeys.

“This crisis affects us emotionally and economically, and it also brings us many worries because we suffer from all the pain our people are going through,” Mr Pardo said.

“For the most part, it is young people who decide to emigrate and take risks through dangerous terrain across Central American countries.

“And we all know, that sometimes, many of them fail to reach their destinations. That creates enormous pain for every mother who can't see her child again and for every family who loses loved ones.” 

Cuban director of photography Raul Prado arrives at the airport in Havana to travel to the United States, on March 12, 2022.
Cuban photographer Raul Prado arrives at Havana airport to travel legally to the United States. Source: AFP/Carlos Batista

10 min read
Published 4 July 2022 at 8:02am
By Ary Guerrero