Crisis in Cuba leads to record number of requests for refuge from Cubans in Brazil

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For the generation of Lianet Miravet Cabrera, 20, wanting to leave Cuba is nothing new. Internet access on the island, albeit late, accelerated the desire for change. But what was a will has become the only way out of the crisis.

Cabrera traveled to Brazil with her husband, Nelson García Román, 30, in July 2022. The couple now lives in Jaraguá do Sul, in the interior of Santa Catarina. She, an engineering student in Havana, is now studying business administration and works in accounting. He, a math teacher, teaches the subject on a YouTube channel.

“The mindset that Cubans had before is not the same as it is now,” says Cabrera. “The internet just started in the country, but people are already realizing that they don’t have the tools to defend themselves.”

Cabrera and Román join the list of Cubans who asked for refuge in Brazil in 2022, a year that recorded a record figure. From January to November, there were 4,241 requests from Cubans, a number that even surpasses records prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Citizens of the island were the second main nationality to request refuge, behind only Venezuelans, the main migratory flow to Brazil.

The numbers were raised by the International Migration Observatory (OBMigra), based on official data, at the request of the Sheet. It is not possible to determine how many of these Cubans are still in Brazil.

Cuba is experiencing one of the worst stages of the chronic economic crisis, aggravated by the drop in tourism revenue in the pandemic and the exchange rate reform carried out by the regime. Even Cubans with higher education and good jobs report a drastic loss in spending power.

Brazil has established itself as an alternative to emigrate. First, because it is a cheaper destination than the US, where border restrictions make it difficult for Cubans to enter. Second, because it is common for Cubans to have family members or friends who stayed in Brazil after defecting from the Mais Médicos program.

The Brazilian immigration law, despite its challenges, is also favorable. When applying for asylum, immigrants receive a protocol that allows them to access work, health and other rights while the request is evaluated by Organs responsible bodies – which can take years.

Mercedes (not her real name), 31, left Cuba with her husband and son, then one and a half years old, in April 2022. Graduated in economics, she was a university professor in her country, but says that the financial situation became unsustainable. “It’s a situation that suffocates you. The government implemented measures that put the people in misery. With a small baby, everything was increasingly difficult.”

Brazil was the chosen destination, among other factors, because Mercedes’ sister is a former member of Mais Médicos and asked for refuge in the country. The family now lives in Sorocaba, in the interior of São Paulo. Mercedes stays with her son, while her husband, also an economist, works as a locksmith’s assistant while trying to revalidate his Cuban diploma.

Mercedes criticizes the way in which the so-called “tarea ordenmiento”, Cuba’s plan to unify its currencies, was conducted. The measure became an inflationary trigger, and there are many products that are currently only sold in dollars. Buying them, however, is getting more and more difficult: the initial idea was that the American currency would be bought for 24 Cuban pesos, but inflation makes the price exceed one hundred pesos.

The unfavorable scenario was one of the agendas for the protests of July 11, 2021 on the island, acts of unusual volume that generated widespread repression. Cabrera and Mercedes say they participated in the mobilization in their neighborhoods.

Aline Miglioli, a doctor in economic development at Unicamp who has done research on Cuba, says that the pandemic has harmed not only tourism, but also the income of citizens who orbit the sector, such as those who rent out rooms in their homes to tourists —the so-called “rentas” “—and the taxi drivers.

“Many people are selling their houses”, reports the researcher. “Ads almost always say: sell with everything inside. With that money, they pay for the trip to countries like Brazil.”

The journey can take up to a week. Orlando (not his real name), 27, traveled for six days. In an irregular scheme, after paying for a coyote from Guyana that he met in a Facebook group, he arrived in October in Boa Vista, in Roraima.

First, it was on a direct flight from Havana to Suriname, a country that does not require visas for Cubans. There he found the coyote and a group of people from countries like Nepal, India and Pakistan who intended to go to the US. In a journey of 9 hours in a cramped van, he was taken to neighboring Guyana and, after another 20 hours of travel, he was dropped off in Boa Vista, where he requested refuge from the Federal Police.

This route is one of the most common for Cubans who emigrate to Brazil. In a recent report, UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, says it has observed a change in the dynamics of entry through Pacaraima, the main gateway for Venezuelans: now, there are more citizens of other nationalities —Cubans at the top. There were at least 97 citizens of the island from June 2021 to September 2022, says the agency.

THE Sheet Abin (Brazilian Intelligence Agency), which monitors the issue, says that the entry route through Oiapoque, in Amapá, by sea, has gained relevance. Until now, it was common for Cubans to leave for Porto Alegre and, from there, for Uruguay. Or else, that they stay in Brazil temporarily, to raise funds and then emigrate to the USA. In many cases, when asylum is not requested, there is not even an official record of the passage through Brazil.

But that has changed, and more and more Cubans are choosing to stay in Brazil. Orlando is one of them. He worked in the food import and distribution sector in Cuba, earning 2,500 pesos a month, but reports that he was no longer able to pay the bills and help his mother. “A 2.5 kg bag of chicken cost 1,700 pesos [cerca de R$ 360].” In Brazil, he works as a waiter at a restaurant in São Paulo.

The intensification of the flow of Cubans to the country also challenges Conare (National Committee for Refugees), linked to the Ministry of Justice. With a migration profile often linked to economic issues, migrants from Cuba sometimes do not fit the criteria for refuge, granted to citizens who are suffering persecution in their country or subject to human rights violations.

So far, Brazil has recognized 1,043 Cubans as refugees. Most —843— due to fear of expressing their political opinions in Cuba. Specialists who monitor the issue demand that the body develop some form of complementary protection for citizens of countries like Cuba, so that immigrants do not wait for years for answers to their demands.

And the scenario, of course, became a time bomb for the Cuban regime. The historical exodus observed on the island could accelerate the shrinking population, in addition to driving away the workforce. UN projections show that the Cuban population, currently around 11.2 million people, will fall to 10 million in 2050. By the end of the century, it will be around 6.5 million – a number similar to that of the 1950s.

The US-Mexico border saw a record number of Cubans trying to cross into US territory in the last fiscal year, which ended in September. There were 220,000 Cubans — 2% of the island’s population. And the tightening of expulsion measures put in place by the Joe Biden government has the potential to force Cubans to seek other destinations, Brazil being one of them.

Although the economic crisis is one of the main motivators, Juan Pappier, senior researcher on the Americas at the NGO Human Rights Watch, says that the political factor is inseparable. “There is a crisis of civil and political rights with the intensification of repression. There are more than a thousand political prisoners after the last demonstrations”, explains the researcher.

“The social contract has been broken in Cuba. The State no longer guarantees quality of life for its citizens.”

After the first months in Brazil, Mercedes and Orlando say they want to stay, especially for economic opportunities. Cabrera, even knowing the country in one of its moments of greatest political polarization, says he is experiencing something he did not know. “We feel free to say what we believe to other people, who respect our opinions.”

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