Thousands emigrate to the US from Cuba in the largest exodus in the island’s history

David González was tired of "survive instead of living" in Cuba. So at the beginning of 2022 she undertook a long trip to the United States, joining the thousands of Cubans who this year staged the largest exodus in the history of the Caribbean island.

This 34-year-old barber could no longer put up with the hardships of a country going through its worst economic crisis since the 1990s, nor a communist regime that he never accepted. He was sick of feeling like he had no future.

In Cuba "you lose hope"says from Miami (Florida), the final destination of his trip.

That desperation, shared by many young people in Cuba, has skyrocketed emigration to the United States to the highest levels on record. Between December 2021 and the same month in 2022, border authorities intercepted Cubans who had illegally entered US territory on 277,594 occasions, according to official data.

That figure exceeds the sum of the two previous large migratory movements: the 125,000 Cubans who left for the United States in the Mariel exodus in 1980, and the 34,000 who left in the rafters crisis in 1994, recalls Jorge Duany, an expert in Cuba at Florida International University.

González began his odyssey with a flight to Nicaragua. The government of the Central American country, an ally of the Havana regime, withdrew in November 2021 the need for a visa for Cubans, making Managua the first stage of the trip to the United States for the majority of migrants from the island. .

The entire journey cost González about $7,000: $3,500 for airfare and another $3,500 for the human smugglers who took him overland from Nicaragua to the United States. A huge sum for the average Cuban salary of 3,768 pesos per month, about 157 dollars.

The barber made half of the money by selling his motorcycle and a few other belongings. A friend sent him the rest from Miami.

From his 30-day tour of Central America and Mexico, he remembers above all the long journeys with dozens of people packed into a bus or in the bed of a truck. The thirst, the lack of air, the unbearable heat during the day and the terrible cold at night.

But that wasn’t what scared him the most. "My biggest fear was that they would deport me to Cuba"recounts.

-"you can see a future" –

Other Cubans leave in precarious boats, risking their lives to travel the 145 km that separate the island from US territory.

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On Christmas Day, 15 of these rafters were intercepted in the Florida Keys, where dozens of Cubans arrive every week.

Mariana de la Caridad Fernández made that journey in November. This 20-year-old girl and her sister Yaneris, 31, had been sentenced in Cuba to four years of house arrest and seven years in prison, respectively, for participating in the demonstrations on July 11, 2021.

After that sentence, they hid for a month and decided to go to Miami, where their mother lives, to avoid jail.

His journey between Cojimar, on the outskirts of Havana, and Cayos Marquesas, in Florida, lasted 16 hours. They were with his dog, Toby, and about 40 other people. The sea was calm.

"We got a bit panicked when we arrived at dawn and had to get off the boat and swim to land"says Fernandez.

A border patrol immediately detained the sisters, but released them shortly after on their word that they will appear before a judge, and now they want to request political asylum. When one year and one day has elapsed since they entered the United States, they will be able to legalize their situation thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act, a benefit that allows Cubans to apply for legal residence.

Others are not that lucky. Rafters intercepted at sea by the US Coast Guard are quickly repatriated to Cuba, unless they can prove their lives are in danger.

Since October 1, the Coast Guard has detained 3,724 Cubans, more than half of all those it arrested between October 2021 and the same month in 2022.

And there are also the Cuban migrants who die at sea, the number of which is unknown.

In April, a boat with 14 men capsized three days after leaving Playa Jibacoa, some 60 km from Havana. Only five managed to swim back to Cuba.

Miriela’s nephew, a Cuban who prefers not to give her last name, disappeared in that shipwreck. "Not having news about his whereabouts causes us suffering"He says.

In Miami, González, also released on parole, hopes to be able to benefit from the Cuban Adjustment Act.

"In eight months I already have what I did not have in Cuba"assures. "It’s not just the material comforts, but you can see a future".

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