The “free visa” for Cubans wishing to enter Nicaragua has sparked one of the largest exodus of migrants from the Caribbean country to the United States. The arrival of islanders increased exponentially in December 2021, just a month after this measure came into force, registering the entry of 6,178 Cubans, while the monthly average prior to that date did not exceed 200.
From January to May 2022, the US Customs and Border Protection reported 119,681 apprehensions of Cubans, a figure that more than doubles the total number of detentions recorded in fiscal year 2021. The economic and humanitarian crisis and political persecution, as a consequence of the social outbreak of July 11, 2021, are fostering a new massive migration of Cubans.
In this scenario, Nicaragua has become the “key to escape the prison,” says Alejandro Mena, a Cuban who left his country in February 2022, and used Nicaragua as a springboard to reach the US. For the migrant, “many young people in Cuba see their country as a gigantic prison.”
“I left Cuba due to political persecution,” stresses Mena, who was a member of the Archipelago movement, an organization that convoked protests in November of last year.
Cuban David Dominguez took a flight from Havana to Managua, to venture on his journey to the United States, because the situation in Cuba “is very difficult.”
“In other countries people have dreams: I want to be a doctor, a policeman, a firefighter. In Cuba no, the dream of Cubans is to leave Cuba. And, after they leave Cuba, to do whatever you want to do,” he bemoans.
A country in flight: “We’re heading to Nicaragua”
“The Cuban migration crisis has had many episodes,” describes Reinaldo Escobar, editor-in-chief of the Cuban digital media 14ymedio. The islanders have even traveled to Russia and have crossed the Bering Strait to reach the United States, the journalist narrates.
“If people want to emigrate, they will find any eyelet where they can get through. And this one that Nicaragua opened, is something the has really favored this emigration,” the journalist underlined.
He points out that the “free visa” for Cubans in Nicaragua, is not the reason that has caused this new migratory wave, but it has facilitated it. “What has caused this migratory flow is the internal situation of the country, with an economy that is totally shattered.”
Cubans are summoned on social networks to explore, plan, and support each other in the journey to the United States via Nicaragua. Tickets from Havana to Managua are being offered on social networks, at prices ranging from 2,500 to 4,500 dollars. In schools and neighborhoods, everyone is talking about “going to Nicaragua.”
Experts on US-Cuba relations believe that the free visa is an escape valve for the Cuban regime after last year’s protests, and a pressure mechanism for the US Administration. However, the Cuban and Nicaraguan dictatorships remain silent on the massive exodus of the islanders.
Escobar quotes a Nicaraguan official, who gave an almost mocking explanation when asked why Cubans were travelling on a large scale to Nicaragua, and she replied that “in Nicaragua there are very beautiful volcanoes and Cubans want to get to know the volcanoes.”
“That is a bad joke. I don’t know any Cuban who wants to spend their scarce economic resources to travel to Nicaragua for a nature tour,” he says.
Mena and Dominguez recall that on their flights to Managua, “nobody was going to get to know the volcanoes.” Everyone on the plane would quietly ask each other: “How much did the coyote charge you? Which route are you going to take? Those were the topics of conversation of the islanders bound for the United States.
Springboard from Managua to the Honduran border
After landing at Managua International Airport, the direct destinations for Cubans are the Mayoreo market, or one of the many hostels that house hundreds of Cubans in transit. There are many hostels “distributed throughout Managua,” where taxi drivers arrive at all hours to take them to the bus terminal that will take them to the city of Ocotal, and then to Jalapa, to cross to Honduras.
“They provide a springboard from the airport to the Honduran border. It was amazing. They would pick up Cubans at two o’clock in the morning, at four in the morning. They came to pick me up at 6:30 in the morning,” recalls Mena.
Mena and Dominguez had never left Cuba. Leaving their country has meant for both of them to recognize even more the dimension of the humanitarian and economic crisis of the Caribbean Island.
“The Walmart (store) when I arrived (in Managua) shocked me a lot. Seeing so much merchandise, so much food. I came out of there crying, especially when I passed by the confitures section and said: how is this possible! In Cuba my children can’t eat chocolate even with money,” says Mena.
Nicaragua became an attractive destination for Cubans in 2019, when the Nicaraguan government relaxed the immigration requirements with tourist visas. That year 44,829 Cubans travelled to Nicaragua, 64 times more than the previous year, when only 701 arrived. At that time, a so-called “horde of muleros” arrived, hundreds of Cubans filled up the streets of the Mercado Oriental, to take merchandise back to the island to sell.
In 2022, Cubans have only one destination: to reach the United States, where Nicaragua is only the first step in a long and dangerous journey that Cubans travel along with thousands of Nicaraguans and other Central Americans.
“The statistics of people travelling to Nicaragua are not published. There are estimates, but in fact neither the Cuban nor the Nicaraguan Government have had the courtesy to provide reliable data. I even dare to say that the cases of Cubans who travel to Nicaragua and return to Cuba are rare,” says Escobar, from Havana.
This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times