A raft painted with a United States flag is intercepted by the Cuban Coast Guard in front of the Havana boardwalk. Ramon Espinosa (AP)
A raft on the Havana boardwalk in the middle of 2022?
Although it may seem crazy, there is the image, which is a good symbol and reflection of the migratory crisis that has been tearing Cuba apart for a year and is breaking historical records.
It happened last Monday, and the scene surprised tourists and onlookers who were walking along the seafront of the capital, near where the United States Embassy stands, reopened with all its diplomatic prerogatives during the thaw caused by former President Barack Obama, in 2015.
In those times, despite the old dispute between the two countries continuing, there were many exchanges and 24 agreements signed between the two governments, and one of the points on which there was the most coincidence was the need to regulate “disorderly” migratory flows.
Everything went downhill later, during the term of Donald Trump, and this week, under the December sun, a fragile rustic boat suddenly appeared on the horizon with a large American flag on the prow and a dozen rafters on board. .
Like thousands of Cubans in recent months, the group intended to cross the Straits of Florida, but apparently the engine of the improvised skiff broke down and the rafters were left adrift in front of the boardwalk, until a boat from the border guard troops appeared that intercepted and towed them away.
The people who watched from the ground did not come out of their astonishment.
It has been more than 28 years since a similar scene was seen in this noble area of Havana.
Exactly, since the summer of 1994, when in the midst of another serious economic crisis on the island the so-called raft crisis broke out, during which 35,000 people left the country.
In those gray days, the Cuban government gave the rafters a free runway and dozens of polyfoam boats and truck cameras left for the United States from the boardwalk, which became a makeshift shipyard, a terrible spectacle.
But they were other times.
Both countries immediately signed migratory agreements, still in force, that put an end to that exodus.
Almost three decades later, when the Cuban economy is once again in the doldrums and the hardships of the population have worsened to the point of resembling, or exceeding, the deficiencies of the Special Period derived from the fall of the socialist camp, it seems to return to the starting point.
According to data from Washington, in the last two months close to 3,000 Cubans have been intercepted at sea by the United States Coast Guard and 500 managed to set foot on land (during the last US fiscal year, from October 1, 2021 to last 30 September, around 6,000 were intercepted and deported).
The figures from the US Customs and Border Protection Office are even more compelling: in fiscal year 2021, 224,000 illegal Cuban emigrants entered US territory through its southern border, to which must be added the 29,000 who entered last month of october.
There are more than 253,000 in just 13 months, and according to all forecasts, in November and December the trend will continue.
If so, we are talking about the fact that almost 3% of the Cuban population would have emigrated to the US through irregular routes at this time.
Most of these people left across Central American borders since Nicaragua eliminated the entry visa for Cuban citizens in November of last year.
Dozens of people have died during this risky journey, which can cost each traveler between $8,000 and $10,000 in plane tickets, payment to coyotes, bribes to officials and miscellaneous items.
A true drama that mortgages the future of Cuba, say Cuban economists and sociologists, since, they say, most of those who leave are young, many of them university students or professionals.
The current stampede is already double that of the Mariel exodus, when in 1980 125,000 Cubans left the country.
The great paradox is that today the US does not want Cuban emigrants and is trying to put an end to this crisis negotiating discreetly with Havana.
The powerful image of a raft on the Havana boardwalk last Monday has several edges.
On the one hand, it is clear that nothing seems to stop the hopelessness and desire of Cubans to emigrate in the midst of the current crisis, when people suffer blackouts of up to 12 hours a day, there is runaway inflation, the deterioration of health is unprecedented and the salaries of anyone who works in the public sector are enough for nothing.
And emigration, which has always been a key element in Cuba-US relations, once again takes center stage at a time of timid attempts at rapprochement between the Government of Miguel Díaz-Canel and the Joe Biden Administration.
Since Trump arrived at the White House, he undid Obama's rapprochement with Havana, dismantled the consulate on the island and intensified the sanctions and embargo to unexplored levels, measures that Cuba considers the ultimate cause of the worsening of the hardships and of all their ills.
For the US, it is Cuba's inability to give birth to its own people that is fomenting the current stampede, and for the Díaz-Canel government, it is the suffocating blockade and its policy of benefits for Cuban emigrants - even if they arrive by illegal - the one that encourages the current exodus.
In this loop of mutual accusations, ordinary citizens remain prisoners, like ping-pong balls, to the fluctuations of political circumstances and behind-the-scenes negotiations that they do not control.
Although very cautiously, since Biden came to the White House there have been cautious steps towards rapprochement between the two governments.
Washington did not go back to Obama's thaw positions, but it dismantled some of his predecessor's most stinging policies of suffocation and eliminated restrictions on remittances and direct flights, in addition to authorizing group trips to the island.
In addition, it has just restored the operation of the Consulate, which from now on will once again grant a minimum of 20,000 emigrant visas to Cuban citizens a year, a measure that Havana considers "positive" but "insufficient."
With Biden, the talks of high-level officials to deal with immigration issues have also resumed, something that Trump liquidated.
Both countries have declared that they are interested in advancing in this matter,
There are issues that are key.
Obama removed Cuba from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, and Trump put it back a week before leaving power.
Now the focus is on the possibility that the United States is willing to remove Havana from that blacklist again – which entails financial sanctions, difficulties and numerous logistical problems for Cuba – in exchange for gestures in favor of human rights, on everything towards the prisoners imprisoned as a result of the demonstrations of July 11 of last year.
In reality, little has come out of these conversations, if at all they have taken place in this way.
The only certain thing is the public, and among this, the US has just included Cuba in another blacklist for its policy of "religious discrimination", something that has been rejected even by the most critical of the Government.
In the meantime, delegations of senior officials and businessmen have visited the island, and the last one, of Democratic congressmen who advocate that both countries open ways of understanding.
In the midst of these debates, contacts and conversations, at the risk of the sea, are the rafters in the photo on the boardwalk.
And also hundreds of thousands of Cubans who are waiting for real changes to take place in their country that give them hope to stay, and also for the United States, in the Biden era, to return to the sanity of the Obama era, when there was no immigration crisis. .
At least, that's what many say.
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