The Latell Report - October 2008
Welcome to The Latell Report. The Report, analyzing Cuba’s contemporary domestic and foreign policy, is published monthly except August and December and distributed by the electronic information service of the Cuba Transition Project (CTP) at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS).
The Latell Report is a publication of ICCAS and no government funding has been used in its publication. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ICCAS and/or the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
The devastation in Cuba caused by hurricanes Gustav and Ike has stoked concerns among some American observers that another chaotic, mass migration of desperate Cubans could be imminent. The three seaborne exoduses in the past caused inestimable human suffering and loss of life, enormous disruptions in the United States, especially in South Florida, and social and economic problems that endured in some communities for years. After the 1980 Mariel crisis a number of American cities experienced surges in violent crime, a direct result of Fidel Castro’s order to have prisons and mental institutions emptied and their inmates forced onto boats headed to Florida. A fourth migration could prove to be larger and more costly than any of the previous ones.
They all occurred for similar reasons. Cubans took to the seas in large numbers in 1965, 1980, and 1994 when:
* Living conditions had substantially deteriorated, marginalizing many.
* Expectations for a better future were waning and despair spreading.
* Prosecutions for petty economic crimes became harsher and law enforcement more aggressive and stringent.
* The chances of success using alternative emigration routes were constricting, and,
* Cuban leaders permitted and even facilitated the departures.
The first four of these factors appear to be present again in the aftermath of last summer’s Caribbean storms. As many as a half million homes have reportedly been destroyed or left uninhabitable. The numbers of homeless and destitute could therefore be well above a million, in a population of eleven million. Cuban government efforts to provide assistance to the afflicted have been slow and limited because of the scarcity of resources, inefficiency, and corruption. Meanwhile, the prospects are poor that materials needed for large scale reconstruction and building of new homes will be available.
Entire communities have been uprooted. Migration to Havana and a few other urban areas, where so much of the existing housing stock is decrepit and already overcrowded, will likely contribute to greater social tension. Public health conditions are deteriorating.
The hurricane damage to critical infrastructure, including roads and bridges, will take years to repair. Food shortages are occurring after hundreds of thousands of hectares of crops were despoiled. Export earning from agricultural produce will also be affected. Nickel production in badly damaged areas of Holguin province is said by the regime to be recovering, but remains well below previous capacity. Overall estimates of the damage from the two storms, ranging from $5 to $10 billion, increasingly appear to be on the low side.
Crime has increased as large numbers of desperate Cubans steal critically needed resources from their work places and government establishments. To combat it, the regime recently announced a tough crackdown on profiteering and theft. Granma revealed that courts will act with greater severity and prosecutions, especially of speculators and hoarders of food, will increase. The courts will more aggressively apply Article 53 of the Penal Code, which governs crimes “taking advantage of the circumstances of a public calamity.”
And the odds of legally or illegally emigrating to the United States are getting tougher. Coast Guard intercept operations in the Florida Straits have been more successful. Human smugglers are being prosecuted more aggressively. And rough seas in the Florida Straits during the winter months will deter all but the most hardy and desperate from boarding small craft that would not be seaworthy.
Perhaps more important, Cuba’s foreign minister recently signed an agreement with Mexico that, when it goes into effect next month, could hobble the escape route that had become the primary one for reaching the United States. More than 11,000 Cubans reportedly entered the United States last year after reaching Mexican shores from western Cuba, or crossing southern Mexican borders after first arriving in a Central American country. If the Calderon government in Mexico effectively enforces the agreement with Cuba, that route will become far more difficult. The net result would be that the numbers of Cubans desperate to escape but unable to do so will multiply.
If the history of past migrations provides a reliable guide, all of these factors now combine to augment the odds of another mass exodus occurring. But the most critical variable in all the previous exoduses is not likely to come into play.
It was Fidel Castro who impelled and legitimized all the previous migrations from Cuba’s north coast. In October 1965 he announced that the small port of Camarioca would be opened and refugees free to leave. In 1980 he did the same when he opened the port of Mariel, after the humiliating crisis at the Peruvian embassy in Havana when more than ten thousand Cubans sought asylum on its grounds. And in the summer of 1994 he permitted, in fact, he facilitated the exodus of about 40,000 Cubans on flimsy rafts and other small boats.
It seems highly unlikely that his successors would adopt such a strategy. Raul Castro was reliably reported to have reflected the thinking of most Cuban generals in 1980 when he was appalled with the chaos that Mariel provoked. As 127,000 Cubans took to boats, and as many as another million prepared to do so, conditions on the island were rapidly deteriorating before Fidel Castro called an end to the boatlift in September. Given the many political and other uncertainties now affecting the transfer of power from Fidel to Raul Castro it is most unlikely that the current leadership would condone, much less facilitate a mass exodus.
However, if for whatever reasons Cuba’s uniformed services were to begin losing control, if law and order were to begin breaking down, and multitudes of Cubans saw an opportunity to escape toward Florida, the odds of another exodus of unprecedented size and velocity would be high.
I wish to acknowledge the valuable assistance provided by Javier Quintana, my University of Miami student research assistant, in the preparation of this report.
Dr. Brian Latell, distinguished Cuba analyst and recent author of the book, After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro’s Regime and Cuba’s Next Leader, is a Senior Research Associate at ICCAS. He has informed American and foreign presidents, cabinet members, and legislators about Cuba and Fidel Castro in a number of capacities. He served in the early 1990s as National Intelligence Officer for Latin America at the Central Intelligence Agency and taught at Georgetown University for a quarter century. Dr. Latell has written, lectured, and consulted extensively.
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