As Cuba’s economic crisis deepens, citizens scramble to migrate by any means

Havana’s airport has become a launch point for Cubans making their way to Nicaragua and then overland to the US, often attempting illegal entry

Cuban Idalberto Echavarria manoeuvred his wife, Olga, in a wheelchair to the front of the line at Terminal 2 of Havana’s airport, dodging luggage and a sea of people bidding farewell to friends and family.

The crowded terminal, a launch point for Cubans making their way by air to Nicaragua then overland to the United States, is one barometer of the frenzy to migrate from the communist-run island nation.

For many, such as Echavarria and his wife, it has also become a last resort as Cuba’s economic crisis deepens with no end in sight.

“There are other ways, but you need money or a family member outside the country,” said Echavarria in an interview at the airport, referring to a refugee programme introduced by the administration of US president Joe Biden in January that requires a US-based sponsor.


He and his wife, who is unable to walk due to a leg infection, have no retirement funds, no well-placed relatives in foreign countries and little access to legal entry programs, he said.

“For us, this was the only option, and the most difficult,” said Echavarria. The couple plan to make the approximately 2,400km trek through Central America by car.

The US – the top destination for Cuban migrants – has since 2022 increased legal pathways to migration for Cubans, including visa access in Havana, in an effort to reduce illegal migration.

But more than a dozen interviews with would-be migrants at Havana embassies, municipal notaries and the airport suggest many, like Echavarria, either lack the means to apply for visa programmes available on-island to Cubans or have lost patience waiting for their turn.

Despite the long onward journey, Nicaragua since 2021 has required no visa of Cuban migrants, and thus remains the easiest route to get to the US, said several of those interviewed.

While Key West in Florida lies little more than 140km from Cuba by water, the route is seen as risky and, unlike travel via Mexico, does not offer legal pathways for entry.

Echavarria said he did not want to cross the border illegally and would make an appointment for an asylum application via a US government app, CBP One, which migrants can access from Mexico.

Others said desperation was such that any route would do, even if it meant attempting to cross the U.S. border illegally.

Just a few minutes from the airport, self-employed taxi driver Alain Ferguson (27), said he had been left without friends by this most recent exodus. “Go to the airport ... almost everyone is leaving through Nicaragua,” Ferguson said. “They don’t care how they go, they just want to get out.”

Nicaraguan officials did not immediately respond to a request for statistics on the number of Cubans entering the country by air.

But last month, Cuba’s foreign ministry said it had detected “noticeable growth” in the movement of its migrants across irregular routes north through Central America in past months, though it did not release statistics.

About 10,700 Cubans were encountered at the US-Mexico border in September, up from about 6,200 a month earlier, according to US government statistics. Levels of border arrivals, however, are still lower than a year ago, when fewer legal avenues existed to apply from abroad.

Artist Ernesto Perez (51) tsaid he had waited since 2015 for his turn to enter the US legally under a family reunification programme. When that didn’t work, he applied for the sponsorship programme.

“Not having a response since 2015, one gets desperate,” Perez said outside the US embassy in Havana as he stood in line for his long-awaited interview. “It crossed my mind to go through Nicaragua ... but I decided to wait a little more and I got lucky.”

Cuba blames the long-running US trade embargo and Trump-era sanctions for fuelling the economic crisis and the exodus of more than 400,000 Cubans leaving for the US in the last two years.

The US says the sanctions are necessary to promote human rights and fundamental liberties in Cuba and that it makes exceptions for humanitarian purposes.

Senior US Department of State official Brian Nichols said on social media he was “concerned by reports of a dramatic increase in Nicaragua-bound charter flights that facilitate irregular migration from Cuba and elsewhere to the United States”.

The US said there would be consequences for those involved but did not specify what those would be.

For many Cubans, however, Nicaragua remains the only viable option for getting off the island, said Yoany Bilbao, a 28-year old auto mechanic.

“Anyone who [can apply for the sponsorship programme] waits for it. But if they can’t, they go through Nicaragua,” he said.

– Reuters