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Cubans are arriving in the United States in record numbers. The smugglers take advantage of their exodus

In March, more than 32,000 Cubans arrived at the US-Mexico border, nearly double the number from the previous month, according to US Customs and Border Protection data.

Claudia, who asked that her real name not be used in this story for her safety, said she decided to leave Cuba after widespread protests in July 2021 over power outages, food shortages and lack of food. civil liberties, overwhelmed.

The Cuban government said the protests were orchestrated by Washington to overthrow the communist government. Prosecutors have charged more than 700 people with sedition and civil disobedience in the largest mass trials since the start of the Cuban revolution.

“I was done after July 11,” Claudia told CNN. “I’m leaving for my son, for his future. I spent the whole day waiting in line for him to have yogurt. I work in a [government] the hospital for $50 a month. I basically work for free.”

After pretending to be tourists for two days in Cancún, Mexico, Claudia and her family were told by the Mexican smugglers they had contacted to fly from Mexico City to Mexicali, a city of over a million. of inhabitants located right on the American border.

Claudia said the small plane bound for Mexicali was full of fellow Cubans. She said the smugglers warned her that Mexican police would arrest them upon arrival at Mexicali airport and write $100 in each of their passports.

Claudia said Mexican police arrested all the Cubans from their flight and from another flight – from Guadalajara, which carried mostly Cuban passengers – which arrived at the same time.

The Cubans on both flights were taken to a nearby police station and officers kept their passports, she said. There, she said, the police left her and her family, along with the other Cubans who had placed a $100 bribe in their passports, free. The others remained detained, she said.

Mexicali police did not respond to a CNN request for comment. Migrants regularly complain that Mexican police solicit bribes and steal them.

After leaving police custody, Claudia said the smuggler they had been in contact with picked them up in a car and drove them to an unfinished house in the Mexican desert.

There, she said, a handful of armed smugglers told more than 30 migrants to wait in two stuffy rooms until they could attempt the border crossing. A room was full of people from different countries, she said.

“There were Colombians, Bangladeshis, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Haitians. It was like the whole world was in there,” she said. The other room, Claudia said, was packed with Cubans.

Cubans collect food donations at a supermarket in Havana in August 2021.

A mass exodus

Cubans have massively emigrated in waves over the years.

In 1994, some 35,000 Cubans made the dangerous journey to the United States on makeshift rafts. And in 1980, during the “Mariel Boatlift”, about 125,000 Cubans fled to the United States on a flotilla of boats.

However, this current exodus is set to be even greater. According to US Customs and Border Protection data, nearly 80,000 Cubans reached the US border from Mexico from October to March.

The increase in migration comes as the Cuban government has begun easing travel restrictions related to Covid-19.

For much of the pandemic, the government kept the island under tight control. People wishing to travel have often waited months for a seat on one of the few weekly flights.

A power outage in Havana.

As Cuba eased restrictions in November, the Cuban government’s ally, Nicaragua, lifted its visa requirements for Cubans, prompting a wave of people who tried to travel to the Central American nation and eventually reached United States.

Suddenly, Cubans started posting ads online selling their homes with “everything inside” to pay for the expensive airfare. Others joked “going to visit the volcanoes” in Nicaragua, a tongue-in-cheek way of saying they were emigrating to the United States.

Many Cubans crossed Panama to get to Nicaragua – and in March, when the Panamanian government said it would require Cubans traveling through the country to obtain transit visas, large crowds of desperate Cubans swarmed the Panama Embassy in Havana.

Cubans demonstrate outside Panama's embassy in Havana as the country tightens visa requirements in March.

Growing shortages of basic commodities are pushing many people off the island, English teacher Kailen Rodríguez told CNN in April as she waited outside the Panamanian embassy for a visa.

“We don’t have the possibility to buy a lot of things here. [outside of Cuba] we can buy everything,” she said.

Critics say the economic crisis and subsequent migration are the fault of the Cuban government, which then uses the wave of migrants to force the United States to the negotiating table.

“Tyrannies cause mass migrations,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said in April. “It’s not just a hostile act, if it reaches a certain level, it’s considered an act of war.”

Cuban officials say increased sanctions, put in place during the administration of former US President Donald Trump, are contributing to economic turmoil on the island.

“In the case of Cuba, it is not only the consequence of the pandemic, it is the consequence of the reinforcement of the policy of maximum economic pressure of the United States towards Cuba”, declared the Cuban deputy minister of Foreign Affairs , Josefina Vidal, in an interview with CNN. month.

The United States and Cuba held their first migration talks in four years in April, but failed to reach a new agreement.

Meanwhile, migrants like Claudia will likely continue to pay criminal organizations to take them on the dangerous and uncertain journey to the United States.

A family from Cuba waits to be transported to a US Border Patrol processing center in December 2021 in Yuma, Arizona.

“I feel liberated”

Claudia said smugglers left her and the other migrants on a dirt road near the US border in the dark after signaling which way to go.

The path was strewn with rubbish and the coats of other migrants who had gone before them.

“They told us not to use the lights on our phones and to shut the kids up,” Claudia said.

But the group was quickly disoriented until one of the people in the group, a Colombian, used a map app on his phone to guide them to the US border, she said.

As they reached the border, Claudia said the group could see lights – a McDonalds – on the Arizona side.

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The migrants then reached a breach in the wall where someone had left a crate of water and chocolate bars, she said. Shortly after, US Customs and Border Protection agents arrived to transport them to a detention center in Yuma, where they were interviewed, fingerprinted and tested for Covid. Claudia’s son was examined by a pediatrician, she said.

Less than 24 hours later, the family was released after applying for asylum. They contacted their relatives in Florida who bought them plane tickets to Miami.

Under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1996, Cubans who spend one year in the United States can apply to become permanent residents.

Claudia says she’s still confused about life in the United States, but her family’s dangerous trip was worth it.

“I feel liberated,” Claudia said. “I am a different person now, I feel reborn.”


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