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Flight to freedom: the triggers of the recent mass exodus from Cuba

Approximately 600,000 Cubans were intercepted at the southern border since October 2021, a higher number than any other mass exodus in Cuba's history.

In the latest round of migration discussions between Cuba and the United States, convened in Washington DC on April 16, 2024, the Cuban regime once again resorted to its well-worn scapegoat: the U.S. economic embargo. By attributing the recent mass exodus primarily to the embargo, the regime adhered to its decades-old tactic of deflecting internal issues onto external factors.

However, this repetitive narrative hides a stark truth: the staggering exodus is a direct consequence of a socio-political oppressive system that systematically renders individuals defenseless, depriving them of any means to escape their circumstances of misery and oppression.

Humanitarian Crisis and Mass Migration.

Cubans today face a multi-systemic crisis due to Venezuela’s declining oil exports since 2019, the Cuban regime’s unpopular 2020 economic reforms, and the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on tourism and remittances. This crisis has led to collapsing infrastructure, decreased purchasing power, currency devaluation, soaring inflation, and severe shortages of food, medicine, and housing.

As a result of this crisis, Cuba has experienced the largest migration in its history. According to the United States Customs and Border Protection Agency, roughly 600,000 Cubans were intercepted at the southern border since October 2021, a figure larger than any other mass exodus in Cuba’s history since the start of the Wars of Independence in 1868.

Cubans leave the island because they have no other option. The Cuban government, acting as the primary employer within an outdated centrally planned economic system inherited from the Soviet era, tightly controls the self-employed sector through high taxes and punitive fines. Self-employed workers need government permission to start their own businesses.

Various studies suggest that from the 1990s to the present, it has been a systematic trend and practice of the Cuban regime to significantly restrict the issuance of licenses to self-employed workers, leaving people in a state of powerlessness subject to the control of the state. Currently, there is a list of 124 prohibited private operating activities, encompassing key economic sectors and skilled professions. Furthermore, the prohibition of non-governmental organizations that could address poverty, humanitarian crises, inequality, racism, and other social conflicts in Cuba exacerbates the average citizen’s lack of agency to improve their economic circumstances.

Refusal to implement critical economic reforms

The Cuban regime’s refusal to implement crucial economic reforms, such as unleashing the country’s productive forces and allowing a free market with price liberalization, has further intensified the crisis. Essentially, ordinary Cubans face significant constraints and lack the autonomy to independently alter their conditions of poverty and oppression. Faced with a lack of opportunities resulting from the economic policies of the Communist Party and a lack of freedom, Cubans find themselves in an exacerbated situation of vulnerability, compelling many to seek refuge in other countries.

While the Cuban regime attributes the humanitarian emergency and economic crisis in Cuba, prompting many to flee to the United States, to the U.S. embargo, a survey conducted in Cuba during the summer of 2022, encompassing 1,227 individuals across 14 provinces, reveals significant disparities in popular perceptions. More than 70% of those interviewed place the responsibility for the crisis on poor governance and the prevailing system, with only 8% attributing the economic and social conflicts to the embargo. More than six decades of manufacturing a narrative that blames the embargo for internal problems in Cuba no longer holds credibility among many Cubans.

Lack of freedom as a fundamental trigger for Cuba’s Mass Exodus

It is essential to pay special attention to the lack of freedoms as a fundamental trigger that forces Cubans to flee the country. Unlike many in Latin America, Cubans lack the freedom to change their circumstances. Article 4 of the Cuban constitution criminalizes efforts to alter the political and economic system. For over 65 years, Cubans have been denied free elections, leaving the Communist Party in unchallenged power and unaccountable for the ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Furthermore, in a country where the state is essentially the main employer and where access to education and work is conditioned by discriminatory requirements of political support for the ruling system, expressing dissent becomes a perilous endeavor. As documented by human rights organizations, the cumulative effects of these practices, coupled with the absence of effective recourse to hold human rights abusers accountable, has added a sense of hopelessness that propelled the decision of countless Cuban professionals and people of all walks of live to flee the country in recent years.

Politically motivated persecution and the threat of prosecution and imprisonment in the aftermath of the July 11, 2021 crackdown on pro-democratic protests were factors forcing many to leave the country. Many individuals who joined these and subsequent protests were at risk of prosecution, forcing them to make a difficult choice between going to prison or leaving the country. Others, who had participated in protests without being arrested, feared being identified later on video footage by authorities. Ultimately, fear of persecution has compelled many to flee.


The Cuban exodus is fueled by an outdated system, ongoing human rights violations, politically motivated persecution, and ineffective governance, resulting in a humanitarian crisis. The state of defenselessness imposed on individuals is a primary cause of this exodus, as Cubans flee due to their inability to change their political and economic circumstances. These conditions of vulnerability and powerlessness are major drivers of the exodus, which could be alleviated in a democratic system governed by the rule of law, where citizens can mobilize for change and enjoy economic and political freedoms to improve their lives.

Governments worldwide must respect the right to seek political asylum, a fundamental human right under international law. While the U.S. parole program has helped about 86,000 Cubans, it excludes many politically persecuted individuals without U.S. sponsors or access to the CBP One app near the U.S.-Mexico border. Immediate actions should reinstate the refugee admission program at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, as urged by Cuban activists, and repeal the asylum ban at the border. This ban, criticized by groups like the ACLU, unfairly denies asylum to migrants based on their entry method into the U.S.

The deportation of Cubans, particularly after denying their asylum applications, violates the Convention on the Status of Refugees and raises serious ethical concerns. Cuba’s laws against illegal departures, restrictive regulations limiting the rights of professionals, and Penal Code articles curtailing freedom of expression and association endanger deportees. Activists, deported to Cuba face imprisonment and other arbitrary measures.

A multilateral approach to the Cuban exodus involves Canada and the European Union joining the United States in imposing targeted sanctions on key figures responsible for repression, including President Miguel Díaz-Canel. Accountability and justice for repression victims are crucial. Supporting peaceful democracy movements within Cuba and initiatives like the March 21st bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to foster an informed citizenry are essential steps toward creating conditions that empower people to demand free and fair elections, allowing them to choose their preferred political system.


Researcher and director of Espacios Democráticos, an NGO dedicated to promoting solidarity in Canada with human rights defenders and civil society in Cuba. Master in Latin American History from the University of Toronto


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