Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees


Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Feb 15 2007 (IPS) - José Cruz left Cuba on Dec. 30, but he never reached his destination. “I’m desperate – I haven’t heard anything from him,” said his brother Roger, who did not provide details on how and where José travelled.

In an e-mail message that has circulated widely, Roger Cruz asks for any possible information about the whereabouts of his 30-year-old brother, “because my mother and father are very sick, and this situation has made things even worse for them.”

“I can totally understand. My mother would be glued to the radio every time she knew I was going to try to make the sea crossing,” Julio, a young Cuban who tried to make it to Florida six times on homemade rafts, told IPS.

“The last time, the coast guards caught us, and since we didn’t make it to U.S. territory, they brought all of us back to Cuba. Now I’m waiting for a visa from the U.S. Interests Section, so please don’t publish my whole name,” he said.

José and Julio could be from any country in Latin America or the Caribbean, where similar stories are a dime a dozen, mainly coming from young men and women, who see emigration as the solution to their economic woes.

This region, which has a total population of nearly 550 million, has one of the world’s highest migration rates, with some 25 million people living outside of their home countries, nearly 18 million of whom are in the United States, the world’s biggest recipient of immigrants, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

Another four million are in other countries in the region, and the rest are living in other regions, mainly Europe, said Cuban researcher Eduardo Aja at an international congress of economists last week in Havana.

“These figures are directly related to statistics that reflect the high levels of inequality in the region,” said the academic from the University of Havana during a panel discussion on the issue.

In his view, international migration, in the case of Latin America and the Caribbean, “is a cause and consequence of social inequalities, as it occurs in a scenario characterised by the liberalisation of financial and trade flows, compared to the stiff restrictions faced by international movements of people.”

“Far from a globalisation of migration, what we are seeing is that the issue is managed by recipient and source countries according to political, economic, national, regional and even circumstantial interests, regardless of the human rights and real needs” of migrants, he said.

The 16th IberoAmerican summit held in early November in Montevideo, Uruguay urged the U.S. government to take measures tending towards the regularisation of workers from other countries, and to put an end to its restrictive immigration policies.

Building walls along the border does not stop undocumented immigration or the trafficking of migrants, while it incites discrimination and xenophobia and favours the appearance of groups of traffickers, who put people in even greater danger, the heads of state and government of Latin America, Spain and Portugal said at the time.

Aja pointed out that there are between 11 and 12 million undocumented Latin American immigrants in the United States. “A growing number of migrants from Central America and the Caribbean are heading to the United States, which is home to 6.2 million Mexicans and nearly 2.5 million Central Americans,” he said.

A large number of people from Caribbean island nations also emigrate, both to Europe and the United States. “There is still a steady flow of undocumented migrants by sea to the United States, despite the actions of the U.S. Coast Guard,” said the academic.

World Bank studies stress that migration plays an important role in economic and social development in the Caribbean, noting that remittances sent home by migrants climbed from a total of about 400 million dollars a year in the early 1990s to around four billion in 2002.

Expatriate remittances represented six percent of the region’s combined gross domestic product on average between 1998 and 2003, and exceeded both foreign direct investment and official development aid, said Aja, who also mentioned, however, the problem of “brain drain”.

“A Time to Choose: Caribbean Development in the 21st Century”, a 2005 World Bank report, says brain drain leads to the “weakening of skills and capacity” in poor countries. It cites Guyana as “an extreme case in point,” noting that it “has been losing teachers and nurses at high, unsustainable rates.”

And in Jamaica, it reports, “roughly 80 percent of the potential number of tertiary graduates has left the country. Moreover, in the Dominican Republic, as well as in Jamaica, even the secondary graduates leave.” In Guyana and Haiti, meanwhile, the proportions are 89 and 83 percent, respectively.

Eight out of 10 university graduates from Jamaica and Haiti are living outside of their home country, the World Bank reported.

Migrants from the English-speaking Caribbean tend to make regular visits home and return to their countries of origin to live after long stays abroad. But they maintain residency in two nations and continuously send home remittances, independently of whether or not they eventually return to their home countries, says the World Bank study.

According to an ECLAC report cited by Aja, nearly one million Latin American professionals and skilled workers were living outside of their country of origin in 2000.

The expert said that although migration flows may relieve pressure on the labour market in the short-term and bring in remittances, which are a major and growing source of revenue, the long-term impact will be negative.

“The loss of young people, the lowering of the overall skill level of the population, and the growing and systematic dependence on remittances constitute a real threat to the development of immigrant source countries,” said Aja.

In his view, “emigration cannot be the only solution for being able to make a living,” which means it is “necessary to define and implement development policies that offer real, long-term options to the entire population.”

“Alternative development policies are needed, different from the ones applied so far, based on relations of cooperation among countries in the region, which strengthen the formation of human capital, instead of prompting people to leave,” he said.

Aja mentioned the case of Cuba only to point out that migration relations between this country and the United States are one of the most illustrative examples of migration becoming a national security issue for some countries.

Sources at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry estimate that 1.5 million Cubans live abroad, including around 1.3 million in the United States, 70,000 in Spain and 50,000 in Venezuela. Several thousand Cuban doctors are also living temporarily in Venezuela, where they are providing assistance in health care programmes.

Studies estimated at the start of this decade that between 490,000 and 700,000 people would leave this Caribbean island nation of 11.2 million if given a chance.

In migration agreements signed by Cuba and the United States in 1994 and 1995, Washington committed itself to granting at least 20,000 visas a year to Cubans. In compliance with these accords, U.S. authorities return all Cubans intercepted at sea to Cuba.

But “balseros” (rafters) who set foot on dry land in the United States are usually allowed to stay and apply for residence, under what is known as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, in effect since 1966.

This policy is a source of tension between the governments of the two countries, because Havana complains that it encourages Cubans to attempt to make the dangerous crossing to Florida.

Statistics from the U.S. Interests Section indicate that from Sept. 31, 2005 to Oct. 1, 2006, it issued 21,195 entry visas to Cubans, and 7,823 permits for temporary visits.

In that same period, 2,810 people were intercepted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard in their attempt to make it to Florida, while 3,075 made it to U.S. territory, where they sought protection under the wet foot, dry foot policy.

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