In the year from December 2021 to 2022, border authorities recorded more than 227,000 instances of Cubans illegally entering US territory – Copyright AFP Delil SOULEIMAN
Gerard Martinez with Rigoberto Diaz in Havana
Exhausted by “surviving instead of living” in Cuba, David Gonzalez set his sights on a new life in the United States.
In early 2022, he joined thousands of Cubans whose migration has amounted to the largest exodus in the Caribbean nation’s history.
Gonzalez, a 34-year-old barber, said he could no longer bear the hardships of a country going through its worst economic crisis since the 1990s, or the communist regime he had never embraced.
In Cuba, “you lose hope,” he told AFP from Miami, Florida, which he reached after a weeks-long odyssey across multiple countries.
That hopelessness, shared by many young people in Cuba, has pushed emigration to the United States to the highest levels on record.
In the year from December 2021 to 2022, border authorities recorded more than 227,000 instances of Cubans illegally entering US territory.
That figure exceeds those of two previous mass departures: the Mariel boatlift, when 125,000 Cubans left for the United States in 1980, and the 1994 departure of 34,000 people to US shores within a month, said Jorge Duany, a Cuba expert at Florida International University.
– ‘My biggest fear’ –
Gonzalez’s journey started with a flight to Nicaragua.
The government of the Central American country, an ally of the Havana regime, removed visa requirements for Cubans in November 2021, making Managua the first stop on the road to the United States for most migrants from the island.
The journey cost Gonzalez some $7,000: $3,500 for the airfare and another $3,500 for smugglers to take him overland from Nicaragua to the United States — a huge sum for the average Cuban salary of 3,768 pesos a month, about $157.
Gonzalez scrounged half the money by selling his motorcycle and other belongings. A friend sent him the rest from Miami.
From his 30-day trip through Central America and Mexico, he remembers above all the long rides with dozens of people crammed on a bus or in the back of a truck.
But it wasn’t the prospect of thirst, lack of air, unbearable heat during the day and biting cold at night that scared him the most on the journey.
“My biggest fear was that I would be deported to Cuba,” he said.
– Danger at sea –
Others choose a different route to the United States no less rife with danger, risking their lives to travel the 90 miles (145 kilometers) of water that separates Cuba and Florida often in makeshift vessels.
On Christmas Day, 15 people were picked up in the Florida Keys, where dozens of Cubans arrive every week.
Mariana de la Caridad Fernandez made the journey in November.
The 20-year-old 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 demonstrations that shook the country in July 2021.
Having been on the run in Cuba for a month, they decided to make for Miami, where their mother lives.
The sea was calm during the 16-hour crossing with their dog, Toby, and 40 others packed into the boat.
“We panicked a bit when we arrived in the early hours of the morning and had to get off the boat and swim to get to land,” Fernandez said.
A border patrol immediately detained the sisters, but released them on parole, giving them temporary leave to stay in the country.
Aiming to apply for political asylum, they hope to legalize their status under the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans to apply for residency a year and a day from when they entered the United States.
– ‘See a future’ –
Others haven’t been so lucky.
Many who are picked up in boats by the US Coast Guard are quickly sent back to Cuba, unless they prove their lives are in danger.
Since October 1, the Coast Guard has detained over 3,700 Cubans, more than half the number taken into custody between October 2021 and the same month in 2022.
Then there are the untold numbers of Cubans who die at sea.
In April, a boat carrying 14 men capsized three days after departing Cuba. Only five managed to swim back to the island.
The nephew of Miriela, a Cuban woman who preferred not to give her last name, was one of those who disappeared in the wreck.
“It pains us not knowing what happened to him,” she said.
For Gonzalez, the risks he took to reach Miami were worth it.
Now also on parole, he hopes to avoid deportation until he can try for residency via the Cuban Adjustment Act.
“In eight months I already have what I didn’t have in Cuba,” he said.
“It’s not just the material comforts, but that you can see a future.”