Cuba’s population drops amid economic crisis and political disillusionment

A street scene in Havana. One out of 50 residents emigrated from Cuba in 2022. PHOTO: Pedro Szekely
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Fidel Castro often said, “Our people are our greatest asset. They constitute our human capital.”

His revolutionary government nationalized big industries, agribusinesses, and banking. It extended free education and healthcare to the entire population; before 1959, these essential services were a luxury for the rich to enjoy. Successful campaigns for universal housing, electrification, food allowances, literacy, and legal reforms to defeat racial and gender discrimination made Cuba’s social welfare competitive with “First World” nations.

In the first four years of setting out on a socialist path, only 248,100 people emigrated. Mainly, they were opponents of the radical changes being made for the benefit of workers and the poor. Now, six decades later, Cuba is experiencing a very different exodus.

Grueling poverty and enforced silence. Since October 2021, 340,000 Cubans have fled. Today’s migrants largely agree with the revolution’s original aims. But they believe the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) is abandoning those goals and with them the island’s people. They feel betrayed.

Those departing were overcome by the realities of poverty, hunger, 1,000% inflation, and collapsing buildings, schools, hospitals, and infrastructure, including the communication and electrical grids. For many, the last straw was a series of draconian laws against free speech preventing complaints, criticism, and suggestions for changes to rescue the revolution.

Desperate migrants begged, borrowed, sold all their worldly belongings, and risked death to leave. They are seeking the prosperity and democracy once hoped for from the revolution. Sadly, they will find neither in the country most are bound for, the United States.

Since January 2021, more than 100 Cubans have perished, and over 350 are missing due to murders, boat wrecks, and drownings while attempting sea and land escapes. The poorest encounter the biggest risks. In 2022, over 8,560 Cubans without the financial means to pay human traffickers emigrated by raft or on foot. They were captured by foreign authorities and returned to Cuba, where they suffered discrimination for trying to flee.

In October 2022, a speedboat from Florida attempted to pick up a few dozen Cubans in the northwestern coastal town of Bahía Honda. The Cuban coast guard rammed the boat, cutting it in half. Eight people, including children, were killed. Survivors swam ashore and collected the corpses of family members without assistance.

Cost and consequences. After Nicaragua allowed Cubans to enter without a visitor’s visa in November 2021, it became a heavily traveled first stop for those leaving.

The price to get to the U.S. overland from Nicaragua varies between $7,000 and $14,000. To make this journey, Cubans have liquidated an estimated three billion dollars in personal belongings, homes, and cars to hand over to unscrupulous coyotes (smugglers) and corrupt cops and bureaucrats. This capital flight equals the annual income of any one of the island’s three economic pillars: resource extraction, tourism, and remittances. The demand for billions of U.S. dollars became the driving force behind hyperinflation.

Cubans entering the U.S. are predominantly young, between 20 and 40 years old. The total population decline due to recent migration is 3%, but six out of every 100 working-age persons have vanished.

The impact on production and services is crushing. Hospital and clinic patients face life-threatening delays, student-teacher ratios explode, tourist amenities deteriorate, and lines for medicine, food, and banking grow longer. Repairs, maintenance, and construction, except for new hotels, have ground to a halt.

Cuba has the highest number of old people and the lowest birth rates in the Americas, as well as the fewest new immigrants. The related steep drop in the production of goods for domestic consumption and for export is currently the worst in the hemisphere. Social security insurance for retirees is unsustainable. Foreign debt maintenance is strangled. Cash flow (liquidity) has evaporated, and banks refuse to extend credit for food to a nation that imports 80% of its sustenance. It’s a downward spiral that forces the need to decamp.

This January, U.S. President Biden clamped down on Latin American immigrants seeking to enter via the Mexican-U.S. border. His restrictive new “Parole Program” rations 30,000 spots per month divided among Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Haitians, and Cubans. A revived Las Vegas-style emigration lottery held by the U.S. embassy in Havana metes out 20,000 annual slots. Family reunification applicants are backlogged by 70,000 due to Donald Trump’s 2017 embassy closure.

Between a blockade and a bureaucracy. During his tenure as president, Trump enacted 443 anti-Cuba measures that, combined with the decades-long U.S. embargo and the Covid pandemic, pushed the island into financial destitution. Biden’s first campaign promise was to reverse Trump’s punishments. He has only acted on three: he has made it easier for U.S. citizens to visit Cuba, reopened the U.S. embassy in Havana, and allowed remittances to resume.

The Cuban government is betting the island’s future on tourism, selling off state property, and the growth of private enterprise. Meanwhile, it ignores people’s needs and harasses those who protest, ensuring that the stampede north will continue.

The prospect of socialism in the Americas raised by the Cuban Revolution inspired working people worldwide. But the Communist Party has broken faith with that dream, as it increasingly adopts the “Chinese model” of socialism — in reality, the restoration of capitalism.

The best action for true friends of Cuba is to loudly protest the U.S. embargo, while at the same time standing with Cubans fighting for workers’ democracy and against that “free market” comeback. No return to the days of neo-colonial super-exploitation!

Yurisbel Martínez Suárez is a member of the Editorial Committee of

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