Cuban Idalberto Echavarria and his wife Olga found themselves at the front of the line at Terminal 2 of Havana’s airport, maneuvering through the chaos of people saying their goodbyes. This terminal serves as a starting point for Cubans who are traveling to Nicaragua and then making their way overland to the United States. It is a clear indication of the growing desire to migrate from the communist-run island nation. However, for Echavarria and his wife, this journey is not a choice but a last resort due to the deepening economic crisis in Cuba, which shows no signs of improvement.
Echavarria explained in an interview at the airport that there are other ways to migrate, but they require money or a family member outside of Cuba. He referred to a refugee program introduced by the U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration in January, which necessitates a U.S.-based sponsor. Unfortunately, Echavarria and his wife do not have retirement funds, well-connected relatives abroad, or easy access to legal entry programs.
Despite the challenges, Echavarria stated that this was their only option, albeit the most difficult one. Their plan is to travel approximately 1,500 miles (2,400 km) by car through Central America to reach the United States. The United States is the preferred destination for Cuban migrants, and since 2022, it has expanded legal pathways for migration, including visa access in Havana, in an effort to discourage illegal migration.
However, interviews conducted with potential migrants at Havana embassies, municipal notaries, and the airport indicate that many individuals, like Echavarria, lack the means to apply for visa programs available in Cuba or have grown impatient waiting for their turn. Nicaragua has become an attractive option for Cuban migrants since 2021 because it does not require a visa, making it the easiest route to reach the United States.
While the distance between Key West in Florida and Cuba is relatively short, approximately 90 miles by water, this route is considered risky and does not offer legal pathways for entry like traveling through Mexico. Echavarria expressed his desire to avoid crossing the border illegally and instead make an appointment for an asylum application through the U.S. government app called CBP One, which can be accessed from Mexico. However, others interviewed by RushHourDaily admitted that desperation has driven them to consider any route, even if it means attempting to cross the U.S. border illegally.
Just a few minutes away from the airport, Alain Ferguson, a self-employed taxi driver, shared that he has been left without friends due to the recent exodus. He observed that almost everyone is leaving through Nicaragua, regardless of the method of travel, as their primary goal is to escape Cuba.
While Nicaraguan officials did not provide immediate statistics on the number of Cubans entering the country by air, Cuba’s foreign ministry acknowledged a noticeable increase in the movement of migrants through irregular routes north through Central America. In September, approximately 10,700 Cubans were encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border, a significant increase from the previous month. However, the current levels of border arrivals are still lower than the previous year when there were fewer legal avenues for applying from abroad.
Artist Ernesto Perez, who had been waiting since 2015 to enter the United States legally under a family reunification program, shared his experience. When that option did not work out, he applied for the sponsorship program. Perez expressed his desperation after waiting for so long but ultimately decided to be patient, and fortunately, he received a positive outcome.
Cuba attributes the economic crisis and the exodus of over 400,000 Cubans to the long-standing U.S. trade embargo and sanctions imposed during the Trump era. The United States argues that these measures are necessary to promote human rights and fundamental liberties in Cuba, with exceptions made for humanitarian purposes. Brian Nichols, a senior U.S. Department of State official, expressed concern about the increase in charter flights bound for Nicaragua, facilitating irregular migration from Cuba and other countries to the United States. The U.S. has warned that there will be consequences for those involved, although the specific consequences have not been specified.
For many Cubans, Nicaragua remains the only viable option for leaving the island. Yoany Bilbao, a 28-year-old auto mechanic, stated that those who can apply for the sponsorship program choose to wait, but those who cannot opt for the route through Nicaragua.
In conclusion, the desire to migrate from Cuba is growing due to the deepening economic crisis. While the United States has expanded legal pathways for Cuban migrants, many individuals lack the means to access these programs or have grown impatient waiting for their turn. Nicaragua has become an attractive option as it does not require a visa for Cuban migrants. However, the journey is not without risks, and some individuals are considering crossing the U.S. border illegally. The situation highlights the desperation felt by many Cubans who are willing to take any route to escape their circumstances.
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