Cuba's exodus: why a record number of Cubans have left for the US

US sanctions and a relentless Communist government are being viewed as responsible

Cuban migrants at US border
More people have left Cuba than in the 1960s during Castro's rule
(Image credit: Carl Juste/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

In Cuba, a mass exodus is taking place. An estimated 425,000 people left the Caribbean island and arrived in the US during 2022 and 2023, according to the latest data from US Customs and Border Protection.

The figures have "smashed records", said Politico. More Cubans have arrived in America in the last two years than at any point since the end of the Cuban revolution in 1959.

A deteriorating economic situation is "largely to blame", Al Jazeera reported earlier this year. Many have fled due to "shortages in food, medicine and power", while the pandemic had a "devastating effect" on the nation's tourism industry.

The Cuban government has attributed the mass migration to its notoriously fraught relationship with the US, and the tightening of sanctions against it by former president Donald Trump.

But Cuban leaders have "failed to negotiate with Washington on a reprieve" over those sanctions, leaving long-standing limitations on trade and investment, Politico added. 

While many leaving Cuba are economic migrants, the continuing "communist dictatorship" in the country may also be a "major push factor", said Al Jazeera. 

"Mismanagement and dysfunction", said Will Freeman from the Council on Foreign Relations, have "worsened" under the leadership of President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who has "shown no appetite for political liberalisation".

Cubans expressed their dissatisfaction with the nation's long-standing communist regime in mass protests throughout 2021. But they were promptly slapped down, a new penal code "further criminalising dissent" being passed in May last year, Freeman added. 

Fleeing Cubans searching for a political and economic alternative in the US face a dilemma: try to enter illegally, or find a sponsor through the humanitarian parole programme introduced by President Biden in January.

While the sponsorship route has saved many Cubans from making "dangerous and very expensive journeys through Central America", El País reported, it has "faced criticism", especially leading up to a US election year. Twenty Republican-controlled states filed a lawsuit against the federal government this summer calling for the programme to be stopped. 

Amid the mass migration, there is "grief" in a "bleeding" Cuba, said Osmel Ramirez Alvarez in the Havana Times. There are "hardly any more plumbers, carpenters, builders or farmers left". 

The full impact of the departure of so many Cubans is yet to be realised. Not everyone can afford to leave, and ties to the island nation are strong. Those left behind are a "shipwreck survivor on the crag of a coast, watching the boat that could rescue him sail away", said Alvarez.

"We watch our cousin, brother, sister, barber, teacher, and the seller on the corner leave," he said. "There's no other choice but to wait for something to happen."

This article first appeared in The Week’s Global Digest newsletter. Sign up for a preview of the international news agenda, sent to your inbox every Monday.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.