An article by Jon Lee Anderson for The New Yorker.
On Thursday, President Obama announced that he was scrapping the long-standing policy by which Cuban migrants arriving at U.S. borders were granted automatic access to the country, and eventual permanent-resident status. The measure, which had immediate effect, was in keeping with a dramatic series of executive actions that Obama has taken to solidify as many of his policies as possible, or to at least hinder their reversal by Donald Trump. The end of open-door entry to the United States for Cubans, called “wet foot, dry foot,” is intended both as a buttress to Obama’s historic rapprochement with Cuba—which Trump has recently threatened to tear up—and as a brake on the surge of Cubans flooding into the United States since a restoration of diplomatic relations was announced, in December, 2014.
Last year, around fifty thousand Cubans entered the United States, a significant increase over the 2015 numbers, which, in turn, rose by eighty per cent over the year before. The numbers were driven up by anticipation of a change in the law. Bill Clinton had pushed “wet foot, dry foot” through after the “rafters crisis” of the nineteen-nineties saw a chaotic exodus of Cubans, a number of whom drowned during the crossing. Under the policy he introduced, those Cubans apprehended by the U.S. Coast Guard at sea would be deported back to Cuba, but the U.S. would accept those who made it to American shores.
From the moment Cuba’s leader, Raúl Castro, and Obama announced their breakthrough, a majority of Cubans deduced that if normalization was under way, the Cuban favoritism of “wet foot, dry foot” would also end, and they were right. The policy had become a major source of grievance for the Cuban government because it stimulated emigration, compounding the brain-drain problem poor countries like Cuba have always had. (On Thursday, Obama also shelved a special program offering fast-track U.S. residency to Cuban medical professionals.) Critics of Obama’s Cuba opening slammed his latest move; Senator Bob Menendez, of New Jersey, a Cuban-American, said that it would “only serve to tighten the noose the Cuban regime has around the necks of its own people.” But Obama’s foreign-policy adviser and personal Cuba overseer, Ben Rhodes, defended the move, arguing that most of the Cubans arriving were not political refugees as in years past but economic migrants, and that the U.S. recognized that Cuba’s future progress depended upon it retaining “a young, dynamic population.”
The end of the open door to Cubans should also help curtail a gruesome people-trafficking network that, over the past two years, has bled tens of thousands of Cubans of what little money they have in order to make it to the United States. Many of the migrants have sold their homes to obtain the cash to pay the traffickers who smuggle them through different countries before they reach the United States. One of the networks funnels people through a Mafia-controlled section of Colombian jungle on an arduous and dangerous trek, sometimes lasting as much as three weeks, through the Darién jungle into Panama. Numerous Cubans, as well as other nationalities, have been robbed, raped, and killed along the way. In Mexico, an unavoidable part of any overland journey to the U.S. border from the south, Cubans fall prey to traffickers linked to the violent drug gangs there, at times with corrupt police involvement.
And, of course, there are still Cubans, too poor to pay for traffickers, who take to the sea in rickety rafts and boats and try to make it to Key West or Miami. An estimated seventy-four hundred have done so in the past year; five Cubans drowned on the very day Obama arrived for his historic visit to Havana, last March. Without “wet foot, dry foot,” indeed, the traumatic custody battle over Elián González—the six-year-old boy who survived one such journey after his mother and ten others drowned when their boat capsized, in 1999—might never have happened.
Over time, many Cubans have made such harrowing journeys. During the nineties, when times were very tough on the island, two of my Cuban friends took to the sea. One of them, a doctor, made his way on a windsurfer. He was fortunate and reached dry land on Key West after nineteen hours alone at sea, with only a plastic litre bottle of water to sustain him. Later, he told me that he had been circled for some time by a large shark, but he had kept his nerve, and his balance, and kept going, and eventually the shark had gone away. Another friend left on a makeshift raft, with other people, and was eventually retrieved at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard. This was during the rafters crisis, and he had ended up in a tent camp at the U.S. Navy base in Guantánamo along with thousands of others Cubans until the Clinton Administration struck an agreement with the Castro regime, which allowed them to immigrate to the United States. A couple of years later, in Miami, that friend told me that he had passed the wreckage of several other rafts that had broken up, and human bodies floating in the water.
In those years, when laws prevented most Cubans from leaving the island for America legally, and the atmosphere was more repressive, the U.S. immigration policy toward Cuba was tailored accordingly. But after Raúl Castro assumed office and his brother Fidel stepped down, in 2008, things have eased up considerably, with the lifting of travel prohibitions for Cubans as well as the previous bans on buying and selling properties and earning a living in small businesses. More than half a million Cubans, called cuentapropistas, now earn their living independently of the state in these small-scale private enterprises, from family-run inns and cafés to private taxis. In Obama’s overtures to the island, emphasis has also been given to this burgeoning sector of the economy. By legalizing and encouraging American investment, lifting the caps on financial remittances, as well as facilitating American travel, there has been a massive growth in the flow of people and money between the U.S. and Cuba. Life, for many Cubans, while still in many ways profoundly constrained, is better than it used to be. Where once the Cubans in Miami and Havana looked at each other across an unbridgeable gulf, the two communities are increasingly fused, with Cuban-American money being invested in many of the small-business ventures on the island. Last year, an estimated six hundred and forty thousand Americans travelled to the island—thirty-four per cent more than in 2015. Since last summer, a number of U.S airlines, including American and JetBlue, have begun flying regular daily scheduled flights between cities in both countries.
All of this activity, of course, was nurtured by Obama’s opening with Raúl Castro. Since the U.S. election, however, the proponents of the new policy have been anxious over some of the Trump team’s transition appointees, who include a pro-embargo advocate as well as others known for hard-line conservative views. When Fidel died, in late November, moreover, Trump tweeted that unless Raúl Castro’s government made concessions in the area of religious and political freedoms, there would be “no deal” with the U.S. A senior Obama official told me late last month that there was still doubt over Trump’s true intentions and mentioned that when Trump met Obama in the Oval Office, after his electoral win, he had indicated some approval of the Cuba opening. The official noted that such a remark seemed consistent with Trump’s reputation as a businessman. “It sure isn’t democracy he’s concerned about,” he observed. “Part of Trump’s brain is hotels, and part is regime change. So, on Cuba, which part of it is it going to be?”