It’s being widely reported that one of the biggest concerns for American officials is a mass exodus upon fidel castro’s death. And when “experts” talk about this mass exodus it’s only natural that they try to quantify it. As I mentioned today in Herald Watch, Pablo Bachelet quotes a conveniently anonymous source who warns of an attempted mass migration by up to 500,000 Cubans.
I have always been highly suspicious of the idea of a mass migration upon castro’s death.
It’s no secret that many Cubans want to come to the US. They build rafts, they hire smugglers, they apply for the visa lottery. But that’s because they can no longer tolerate the political and economic systems in Cuba. I don’t think I’m making a leap here by saying that they identify those failures with fidel castro. Leaving one’s country (an in many cases one’s family) is a major step that is not taken lightly. The death of castro may make those that are on the fence about leaving take a “wait and see approach”. The idea is that things can only get better after castro. Whether that’s true or not we can only guess but that’s what logic dictates.
Another thing to consider is that the reason we don’t have an uncontrolled mass influx of Cubans now, as we did in 90s is because the policies of both countries have changed. The US will send back Cubans interdicted at sea and the Cubans won’t allow rafters to openly pursue their plans and build their rafts etc. The Cuban-adjustment act has created an orderly migration of 20,000 – 25,000 Cubans a year. The US likes this because it creates stability. The castro regime likes it because they can literally control who leaves and who stays and also turn it into a money making venture. Everything from fees to apply for exit visas, to required physical exams (which are not free in Cuba’s “free” health care system) to bribes for government officials. The system is set up to capture as much cash from these would-be gusanos as possible.
When we have had the uncontrolled Cuban migration episodes in the past, it has been different. In 1980 for example Carter signaled the Cubans to come and castro allowed them to come. In the 90’s during Cuba’s special period, again castro again allowed them to come. Remember that immigration is a sort of escape valve on the pressure cooker that is Cuba. The most disgruntled and desperate are the ones that take desperate measures. Although Clinton did not signal for the Cubans to come, he didn’t signal for them not to come until the rafter crisis was underway.
The point is that a mass migration can only happen if the Cuban government allows it to happen. If fidel’s successors truly see an opportunity for a rapprochement they are going to be careful not to unleash such a wave. US officials are on record saying that such an act would be considered a hostile act.
A mass migration will only happen if Cubans sense that things are getting much worse after fidel is gone. As I said, I think most Cubans who are entertaining thoughts about leaving have at least a hope that any change can only be a positive one. If they are wrong and Raul or others turn out to be even more repressive and backward than fidel, then the Cuban government is going to have a lot more trouble on its hands than a potential migratory wave out of the island.
My point is that people who are using a fear of a mass Cuban migration as the basis for a foreign policy of status quo (allowing a succession rather than pushing for a transition) toward Cuba are probably making some faulty assumptions.
I think that immediately after fidel dies (right after the media spectacle of the state funeral) the president needs to make a declaration to world about the U.S. position on Cuba, essentially saying that the US is prepared to lower the embargo against Cuba, restore diplomatic relations with Cuba and lend substantial aid to Cuba once some simple basic criteria are met. This is not new, it’s essentially the current policy but the issue is timing and context. In other words the world currently (and wrongly) perceives the ball to be in the U.S.’s court. Such a statement at such a time will put the ball squarely in Cuba’s court.
On the eve of the change that so many Cubans have been waiting for it’s hard to envision that mass migration. The only mass migration I expect is of high ranking government officials that have blood on their hands and money in foreign banks. Like rats from a sinkiing ship they’ll be jumping. That’s one migratory wave we need to be prepared to return to Cuba.