Changes to immigration policy will not stem the Cuban exodus, those on the island say

File photo of Cuban migrants on the Guatemala-Mexico border. After months stranded in Central America, the Cuban migrants began their long-awaited trip north, toward the U.S. border.
File photo of Cuban migrants on the Guatemala-Mexico border. After months stranded in Central America, the Cuban migrants began their long-awaited trip north, toward the U.S. border. AP

When Washington put an end to a preferential immigration policy for Cuban migrants nearly two weeks ago, the official reasoning behind the move was to stem the flow of an increasing exodus and prompt democratic changes on the island.

Many in the exile community considered the new measure a “gift” for the Cuban government.

But looming questions remain: Will Cubans stay in their homeland or continue to flee? And is the Cuban government the real winner with this agreement?

Part of the debate was generated by the way the policy shift came about — announced through a joint statement from both governments and without warning to avoid a migratory crisis, according to Ben Rhodes, Obama’s adviser on Cuba.

Antonio Rodiles, a Cuban government opponent and one of the coordinators of the Forum for Rights and Freedoms, told el Nuevo Herald that the policy revision was “necessary” but criticized the “abrupt” way in which it was carried out. He also took issue with the fact that the announcement was made jointly with the Cuban government, with the release of a “shameful” document in which “the Cuban regime spoke of the defense of human rights and other issues in which it has been the principal violator.”

Rodiles said that the policy “had been distorted” by the Raúl Castro government itself, which constructed a narrative in which the emigres “fled for economic and not political reasons.” Many repeated that statement upon arrival in the United States to avoid conflicts with the government and to be able to return to the island, where many left behind their closest relatives.

These kinds of public declarations, along with high-profile crimes committed by some newly arrived immigrants, elicited negative opinions among the public, including Cuban exiles who arrived in earlier migration waves. Two Cuban American congressmen, Carlos Curbelo and Marco Rubio, even filed a bill to restrict Cuban immigrants’ access to federal benefits and grant them only to those who had left the island for political reasons.

The change in immigration policy was, ironically, supported by both the Cuban exile “hardliners” and the Cuban government, said Carlos Saladrigas, president of the Cuba Study Group, an organization close to the White House’s engagement efforts with Cuba under former President Barack Obama. He added that the new migration pact with Cuba will make a series of other changes implemented over the past two years more difficult to dismantle.

At the same time, Saladrigas said, it is not clear what the Cuban government has won or lost. Even though closing the door to irregular migration in the long term, plugs “a brain drain detrimental for the future of Cuba and the Cuban economy,” in the short term, it was politically beneficial to the Cuban government “because the youth, far from showing their dissatisfaction, sought a way to escape.”

Frank Mora, a professor at Florida International University and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Latin America, questioned how the agreement could be considered a victory for the Cuban government “if, to some extent, Cuba has used emigration to the U.S. as an escape valve — and now that’s over — and the government has agreed to receive individuals who have committed crimes?”

The important thing, stressed Saladrigas, is that the measure “forces young Cubans to seek their future inside Cuba,” an argument also used by Rhodes when explaining the Jan. 12 end to the policy.

Several opposition organizations inside and outside the island have shared this vision.

In Miami, the Cuban American National Foundation declared in a statement that “the solution to the Cuban problem cannot be found anywhere else but within Cuba ... Fleeing is not the solution.”

From Santiago de Cuba, the Patriotic Union of Cuba, known by the Spanish acronym UNPACU, published a video in which several interviewees said they believe that the change in the U.S. immigration policy would force Cubans to stay and “demand from the government what they lack here in Cuba.”

But migration expert Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at FIU, said that while eliminating the “wet foot, dry foot” policy will reduce irregular immigration to the U.S., it will not totally prevent it.

“Until now, Cubans have been going anywhere because the issue is to flee, to escape from Cuba and they will continue to do that,” independent journalist Miriam Celaya said from Havana.

Celaya does not believe that the end to the immigration policy will serve as a pressure tactic to bring about political change.

“The fact that there is a belief that a policy of another country determines or does not determine the changes that will occur within Cuba is already a distortion,” Celaya said. “Whether or not a wet foot, dry foot policy exists, the situation is critical and will continue to worsen as long as there is not a deeper opening and reforms that truly allows for the empowerment of Cubans.”

Dagoberto Valdés, director of the Centro de Estudios Convivencia organization and a magazine with the same name in Pinar del Río, agreed.

“I do not think this or any immigration policy of another country will put an end to migration because the reason that Cuba has changed from being a country that received emigrants before 1959 to a country that sends them is because of the economic, political and social model that exists in this country,” he said. “Until the cause is not tackled, the efforts by Cubans to seek a better life won’t cease; no one runs away from a place where they are happy.”

As the United States rushed to sign several agreements with Cuba, including one with the Ministry of the Interior, which oversees Cuban security and intelligence, the increase in repression on the island has been the main complaint among opponents and activists.

Valdés, a renowned Catholic, and workers at the center he presides, have been harassed in recent months, in what he calls the “highest” government repression in recent years.

Several high-profile government opponents have been temporarily detained in the past few weeks. Among them: Dr. Elias Biscet and other members of the Emilia project; artist Tania Bruguera; several members of the the Women in White Movement, including their leader Berta Soler; and several UNPACU activists. And artist Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado spent nearly two months behind bars for spray-painting the words “Se Fue” (“He’s Gone”) on a wall in Havana after Fidel Castro’s death in late November.

“I think it is inhuman to apply more pressure to bring about change that Cubans have to do for themselves,” Valdés said.

“Political pressure over any government must be carried out by its citizens,” he said. “Here, the fundamental problem is to normalize the democratic relations between the Cuban government and its people.”

Cuban sociologist Marlene Azor, who lives in Mexico, also questions the “pressure cooker” theory as a way to increase civic action in Cuba. Azor believes that without international support to call for an end to government repression against dissent, “the population will continue to opt for personal solutions and not for collective one.”

In a Facebook post, Azor wrote: “Those who advocate for stemming the flow of migrants at this time are only supporting an increase in violence in Cuba” since “collective civic actions that exist in all other countries of the Western Hemisphere do not exist [in Cuba].”

Celaya also said that the international community should support the rapprochement and pressure the Cuban government to protect human rights. But, ultimately, Cubans must overcome fear.

“It is undeniable that Cuba is under a dictatorship, and that it is repressive. But, on the other hand, Cubans are very afraid and a situation of survival and escapism has been created,” she said.

“Cubans have to understand that no foreign government has an obligation to solve its problems. As long as Cubans do not realize that their destiny is in their own hands, as long as they continue to attend government-ordered marches, belong to the CDR [Committee for the Defense of the Revolution], take part in elections under pressure by the government and hold on to that visceral fear... the current state of affairs here in Cuba will continue.”

Follor Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres