Pushed by both political and economic forces, Cubans are leaving their country in record numbers, either by flying to Nicaragua to join Central American migrants on their dangerous land journey north, or by setting out to the USA by sea. Intensified repression to prevent a repetition of 2021’s mass protests is also forcing numerous activists and artists into exile. The Cuban regime is incapable of stopping the exodus, since that would require admitting there is a problem that can only be fixed by fundamental change. So instead of dealing with the causes of discontent, the Cuban regime continues to repress its expression.

Andrea didn’t choose to make a documentary about Cuban rafters arriving in Florida – the story chose her, through the sheer force of unfolding events.

While on summer break in Key West, the USA’s closest point to Cuba, Andrea Sambuccetti, an Argentina-born, Florida-based artist and filmmaker, spotted a ramshackle vessel on the horizon, getting closer by the minute. She remembered the news she’d seen over the years, of boatloads of Cubans sometimes making it to the USA through the 90-mile stretch of treacherous ocean, and thought it a coincidence to have witnessed such a rare event. But she saw another raft arrive the next day. And the next.

This was the beginning of a research journey that ended in an award-winning documentary, ‘The Water Wall’. What Andrea had seen without looking for was the tip of the iceberg: the visible expression of an ongoing, months-long wave of migration, overwhelming the capacity of the US Coast Guard, whose migrant processing facilities in Florida are bursting at the seams.

An ongoing exodus

Between October 2021 and September 2022, more than 10,000 Cubans tried to reach the Florida shore, and 3,000 managed to make landfall. The number of rafters detained, either at sea or after reaching land, exceeded 5,000 – more than the total for the five previous years combined. In October 2022 alone, the US Coast Guard intercepted 1,100 people.

Additionally, an average of 891 Cubans crossed the US southern land border illegally every day in September. Overall, a staggering 224,607 Cubans were found crossing by land between October 2021 and September 2022, compared to 39,300 the year before and 14,000 in 2020.

Following the protests of 11 July 2021 and their repression, it became clearer than ever that the only three options available to Cubans are prison, exile, or submission.


The scale of the current exodus is unprecedented. Until now, the largest Cuban migration flow came in the early 1980s, when 125,000 people left the island for the USA.

Cuban emigration and US legislation

The six-plus decades since the Cuban revolution have seen at least five distinct waves of migration. In the early months, those leaving were part of the old elite, who were soon joined by a sizeable number who had supported the struggle against dictatorship but aspired to democracy, and therefore felt betrayed as the revolution embraced communism.

A second wave followed as many middle class entrepreneurs and professionals started leaving. The 1966 US Cuban Adjustment Act gave them special treatment in the form of a quick path to legal residency. On the understanding that they were political refugees, Cubans were automatically granted permanent resident status after just two years in the USA – a requirement lowered to one year in 1976 – even if they had entered the country through illegal routes.

The third wave, in the early 1980s, began as a result of dialogue between the Cuban government and representatives of Cuban exiles, resulting in the release of 3,600 political prisoners and family reunification visits. This was a chaotic wave, as Cubans living in Miami would send for their relatives in Cuba, but ships would often return full of freed prisoners, including not only political prisoners but also criminals the Cuban authorities wanted rid of.

The fourth wave took place during the so-called ‘special period’ that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, which brought extreme hardship in Cuba. Tens of thousands of rafters set out for the USA. In response, in 1995 the Clinton administration introduced a major amendment to the Cuban Adjustment Act, popularly known as the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy.

This meant that for the next 20 years, rafters intercepted by the US Coast Guard in the water (‘wet feet’) were immediately sent back to Cuba or another location, while those who managed to reach US soil (‘dry feet’) were allowed to stay.

Although its intention was to curb immigration, now viewed as economically rather than politically motivated, and dissuade people from undertaking the dangerous crossing, this policy still gave Cuban migrants an advantage over people coming from other countries.

The ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy was ended by the Obama administration in 2017. This decision, together with the 2021 initiative by Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega to allow Cubans visa-free travel to Nicaragua, gave rise to a new phenomenon: growing numbers of Cubans reaching the southern US border on foot, alongside Central American migrants, having travelled the same dangerous routes.

For the past five years, Cuban migrants haven’t had any special status and must seek legal entrance into the USA to be eligible to become permanent residents. Those requesting refugee status must prove they face ‘credible fear’ to avoid being sent back. As a result of bilateral agreements, the US government must grant Cuban nationals 20,000 visas a year – but that is currently around the number of Cubans risking their lives passing through Central America and Mexico to reach the USA every month.

There aren’t many options for those seeking a way out. Nicaragua is the only viable country Cubans can fly to without a visa. Alternate destinations – such as other Caribbean island states – won’t help them get any closer to the USA. Cubans are also able to travel to Russia, its satellite state of Belarus and its authoritarian allies in Central Asia, plus a couple of Pacific islands and African states. Montenegro and Serbia are the only countries that could offer them a path into Europe. But the cost puts this out of reach for most. Only high-profile activists or journalists who receive support from international civil society partners or have dual nationality have an easier path elsewhere. Several persecuted artists and academics have recently gone into exile in Spain.

But for most people, the choice is stark: spend everything they have on a ticket to Nicaragua and payment for smugglers to take them on the dangerous trail through country after country, or set out to sea.

Those taking to sea usually leave in groups of five to 15 people on makeshift rafts. They are mostly young men, but groups can include women, children – sometimes with their parents, sometimes unaccompanied – and older people. The journey can take as little as a couple of days or as long as two or three weeks, depending on currents that can push boats towards the Gulf of Mexico. Many migrants drown or suffer shark attacks when boats capsize, break or sink, and others die of dehydration when they run out of water after weeks adrift.

But the first obstacle is closer to home. Cuban security officers patrol the coast to prevent people taking to sea, and Cuban Border Guard ships try to intercept them in Cuban waters. This sometimes leads to fatalities. Most recently, five people died after their boat collided with a Border Guard ship trying to stop them. The Cuban authorities typically blame the USA for ‘encouraging’ illegal immigration and parade those caught trying to leave on TV as a cautionary tale.

Those who manage to reach US waters face one of two fates: if they are intercepted by the US Coast Guard at sea, they are given food, water and emergency care and sent straight back; if they manage to make landfall, they are processed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and kept in a detention centre. There, they must convince the authorities they face ‘credible fear’ of reprisals if they return. If they don’t, they’re deported.

Those sent back to Cuba face even more hardship than before. No wonder many try again, as many times as it takes. Andy de la Torre, one of the rafters featured in ‘The Water Wall’, only made it on his 43rd attempt.

Economic strife

Deteriorating infrastructure and health services, high inflation, shortages of food and medicines and a failing power grid resulting in ongoing blackouts are making life in Cuba miserable for most. With productivity at record-low levels, even food staples are hard to come by and almost impossible for regular Cubans to afford. Few continue to believe the government will make things right; hopelessness prevails, especially among the young.

Several external factors – a global economic crisis, rising fuel prices, the effects of the pandemic and tightened US sanctions – are making the situation even worse. But Cuba’s main problem is one that the authorities can’t acknowledge, and therefore can’t solve: a discredited economic and political model that stifles any hint of dissent, creativity or innovation.

For today’s would-be emigrees the USA is less a land of opportunity than their only choice. They dream of a free life, not of America – but they’ve come to realise that their best bet of a life where they’re free to make choices is in the USA. Young as many of them are, they don’t feel they have the luxury of time. They’ve watched their parents’ generation grow old while waiting for freedom to come and it seems more realistic to try to find freedom elsewhere.

Political repression

Demands for economic and social change are inextricably linked to demands for civil and political rights: because people are denied the right to express dissent, they can’t articulate alternatives. The Cuban government knows it, so it represses protests regardless of whether they have economic or political motivations.

Cuba’s largest protests in living memory came on 11 July 2021. In the 11J protests, as they became known, people marched for a variety of reasons: against growing inequality, inflation, food and medicine shortages, power outages and the government’s inability to get a grip on the COVID-19 pandemic. But they also protested for the right to associate freely, express their opinions without being ostracised as ‘agents of imperialism’ and ‘enemies of the people’, and elect their own government. These protests marked a turning point because they represented a collective loss of fear.

Not surprisingly, everything the Cuban authorities have done since then has been aimed at bringing the fear back. The government is determined to prevent a repetition of 11J-style protests – not by addressing people’s grievances but by making it too costly to air them.

More than a year later, judicial proceedings against 11J protesters are ongoing, and restrictions on civic space have further tightened. As the anniversary of the protests approached, the authorities took special care to limit dissenting speech online and offline, including by citing and fining activists for their social media activities and subjecting independent journalists and other critics to a barrage of restrictions, including threats, police citations, house arrest and internet blocks.

In May 2022, parliament approved a new Penal Code that will likely be used to further criminalise activism and protest.

The number of convicted political prisoners has steadily increased, from 152 prior to 11J to more than a thousand today. In May 2022, activists and artists Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel Castillo were handed lengthy prison sentences. This pressure has forced several activists and artists to take the path into exile.

Voices from the frontline

Carolina Barrero is a Cuban activist who has lived in exile in Spain since February 2022.


My story as an activist forced into exile follows the pattern typically used by the state security apparatus to neutralise dissidents. I was told many times that I had to leave or else I would suffer legal consequences and eventually go to jail. I never gave in. I currently have four open cases, for instigation to commit a crime, conspiracy against state security, contempt and clandestine printing. Every single time I was threatened with prosecution and imprisonment if I did not stop my activism. I was urged to ‘stay quiet’, a classic euphemism for subdued.

On 31 January 2022, I was arrested at a protest outside the 10 de Octubre Municipal Court in Havana. It was the first day of the trial of a group of 11J protesters. I was with other activists including Alexander Hall, Leonardo Romero Negrín, Daniela Rojo and Tata Poet, accompanying political prisoners’ mothers who were waiting to see their children from a distance when they were brought to court. When that happened, we all applauded and shouted ‘freedom’ and ‘they are heroes’. State security offices violently arrested us, beat us and put us in a cage truck to take us to different police stations.

As happened before, state security told me that I had 48 hours to leave Cuba. But this time I was told that if I didn’t, 12 mothers of political prisoners would be prosecuted for public disorder. At first I thought it was just an empty threat, but they told me, ‘for 20 years we have been doing this to the Ladies in White’, a group who have been mobilising for their detained relatives since 2003. In other words, they were prepared to go all the way.

The Cuban dictatorship knows very well how to put pressure on us using our families and our private lives, because they have us under surveillance and they know everything about us. For instance, they know if your mother has a heart condition so they pay her a visit to force you to stay quiet and not give her a heart attack. If you have committed an infidelity, they threaten to show photos to your partner. If you are at university, they threaten you with expulsion. If you live in rented housing, they pressure your landlords to throw you out. Their tactic is to detect your weakness and blackmail you into submission. At some point you get tired of this life and choose to self-censor.

These threats were not working with me, so they threatened me with infringing on the freedom of third parties. They knew of my close ties with the mothers of imprisoned protesters and particularly with Yudinela Castro and Bárbara Farrat. Most of these mothers live in very precarious situations and cannot denounce the arbitrariness they suffer. Many have more than one child in prison, sometimes also their husbands, so they are quite alone. When they threatened me with criminalising and imprisoning them, I decided this time I had to leave.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Carolina. Read the full interview here.

The use of short-term detention has also intensified. As reported by Prisoners Defenders, a Spain-based human rights organisation working in Asia and Latin America, more than 11,000 people – mostly young, overwhelmingly Black and with no links to opposition groups – have received sentences of one to four years for ‘pre-criminal social dangerousness’. Without having committed any crime, they’ve been convicted because they’re deemed prone to committing them in the future, due to having exhibited behaviour, in the words of the Criminal Code, ‘in clear contradiction to the norms of socialist morality’.

No wonder the number of protests sharply decreased after 11J. It should be noted, however, that protests never subsided to earlier levels, and after a slowdown their number has started to rise again.

The Cuban Observatory of Conflicts documented 589 protests in October 2022 alone, an average of 19 per day, including pot-banging protests, road blockades, marches and many solo protests. Both economic and social anger – 55 per cent of protests – and demands for political and civil rights – 45 per cent – were articulated.

The struggle goes on

Lack of economic opportunity and the repression of dissent are intertwined factors in protest and exile because they emanate from the same source: an authoritarian system that prevents people taking control of their own lives.

For the Cuban government, the ongoing exodus is a very public failure that it can’t own up to or respond to – because if the country were working as well as it says it is, why would so many people want to leave?

Many high-profile dissenting voices are now behind bars, but those who’ve been pushed into exile are making sure they’re not forgotten. And they’re actively hitting the regime where it hurts the most: on the founding myth of the revolution that is the base of its international reputation and the support it still manages to garner.

The Cuban regime’s increasingly repressive measures betray its growing weakness. Once controlled through fear, a newly confident Cuban society is increasingly making the government afraid. But the intensification of well-rehearsed routines of repression will likely mean change is still some time coming. Until then, the exodus can be expected to continue, with the country’s some of the most talented, creative and innovative people lending their skills to their host societies rather than being able to contribute to building a better future for Cuba.


  • The Cuban authorities must drop all charges against protesters and free all political prisoners.
  • Democratic states with diplomatic and economic links to Cuba should push for the release of political prisoners and the opening up of civic space.
  • Progressive, rights-oriented civil society around the world must side with Cuban civil society under siege, including by supporting the efforts of Cuban activists in exile.

Cover photo by Adalberto Roque/AFP via Getty Images