Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas
Photo Essay

Photo Essay: Stories from Cuba’s New Exodus

AQ visits the U.S.-Mexico border as record numbers of Cubans attempt to cross.

October 25, 2022

This article is adapted from AQ’s special report on millennials in politics

Cubans are leaving their country in numbers not seen since the Mariel Boatlift crisis of 1980, when 125,000 reached Florida in five months. In the first seven months of 2022, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol alone registered over 150,000 Cuban entries, indicating over 1% of the island’s population made the journey in under a year.

Under the U.S. Remain in Mexico policy, many Cubans attempting to enter from Mexico waited in border towns for their court processes to conclude, just shy of their hoped-for destination on the other side of the wall. Photographer Lisette Poole, a Cuban-American herself, visited Tijuana in July where she met Hector, Jesús and Marcos to hear their stories.

Their last names have been withheld for their safety and that of their families in Cuba. All photos by Lisette Poole.

Tijuana’s vibrant public spaces, known for music and street vendors, frequently reach right to the border. This contrasts with the U.S. side, where civic life is often set back from border barriers.
Hector, left, 55, a carpenter from rural Cuba, volunteers at the Desayunador Salesiano “Padre Chava” shelter and soup kitchen in return for a place to stay as his U.S. court process unfolds. The photo on the right shows a church where Hector found a job cleaning. He said he left Cuba because his son and his siblings are struggling to afford food and other necessities. He had lived his whole life in the small town of Las Tunas but the situation had recently grown so desperate in rural areas that he left as soon as his older brother, in the U.S., offered to finance the $4,500 journey.
Hector and others who live in the shelter prepare and serve meals for its soup kitchen, which caters to both locals and migrants. Hector left Cuba on an arduous but increasingly common route: to Nicaragua by air and then overland to the U.S.-Mexico border. Nicaragua lifted visa requirements on Cuban travelers in November 2021, making this journey much more accessible. This is part of why so many Cubans are now arriving at the border.
Hector walks with another migrant who lives at the shelter and works at the church. He was shocked by Tijuana’s high rates of drug addiction, homelessness and violent crime. To Cuban migrants especially, these symptoms of poverty are different from those back home—and jarring. But they were also moved by the relative abundance of food and other necessities. “The supermarkets are a whole other world. You can choose what you want,” Hector said. Cuba’s economy was already struggling under tightened U.S. sanctions and the Venezuelan crisis that sharply reduced access to energy and foreign reserves, when the pandemic crushed the country’s tourism sector. Supply chain problems pushed food prices ever higher.
Jesús, right, 58, a doctor from Holguín, Cuba, volunteers with a local doctor who sees patients at a free clinic. In the photo on the left, Jesús hands out masks to patients waiting in line. He lives at the shelter, and he said that feeling useful helps him in his struggle with depression. As he waited in Tijuana, he often felt hopeless and without agency, subject to a confusing, opaque process.
Jesús worked for 26 years as a doctor and served on medical missions in Honduras and the Brazilian Amazon. Yet, he said, “My salary isn’t enough even to buy my daughter a pair of sneakers.” In Cuba, he moonlighted as a cab driver and decided to leave when the government offered him a mission in East Timor, which he viewed as punishment for speaking out against low wages and lack of medical supplies. “Families in Cuba have to provide their own supplies for surgeries,” he said.
At the shelter, volunteers have only a few square feet to themselves. In this limited space, they store all the belongings with which they hope to start a new life—and those they borrow from others as they endure an indeterminate wait. This bed belongs to a worker at the shelter who has created a home for himself—albeit a temporary one.
Marcos, 38, washes the windows of the shelter where he lives and volunteers. Lawyers and other groups also visit the shelter to provide resources and information for migrants, but the information is often sparse. He left Cuba in April, after learning that many Cubans were being granted legal status in the U.S. He said one reason he left is that “there’s no freedom of expression … so (the government) marks you as an undesirable, as a counterrevolutionary and whatever else.” In July 2021, the island experienced the largest anti-government protests since the 1990s, sparking hope that the administration of President Miguel Díaz-Canel would loosen restrictions on expression and commerce. Instead, the government responded with violence and over 1,400 arrests, fueling the exodus. In the photo on the right, Marcos speaks at the shelter with a representative from the UN’s International Organization for Migration (OIM in Spanish) to participate in a group outing to a theater performance arranged for migrants in Tijuana.
Parishioners in Tijuana participate in a joint church service with a group on the other side of the border fence. These services provide a gathering place for families separated by the border. Before the pandemic, an open gate allowed families to congregate, a rare opportunity for physical contact. Now, the gate is locked.
Marcos, Hector and Jesús all crossed into the U.S. at an area called el Nido del Águila, the Eagle’s Nest, where there is a break in the border barriers seen in the background. In the foreground, a local man burns trash to collect scrap metal from the ashes. The area is known as one of opportunity for those seeking to cross without legal status into the U.S., but also an area of danger where migrants are especially vulnerable to robbery and extortion. All three were apprehended by U.S. authorities, who expelled Jesús and Hector under the Remain in Mexico program and expelled Marcos under Title 42, which allows authorities to deport migrants on public health grounds. The U.S. is deporting relatively few Cubans to their home country, in part because the Cuban government is refusing to accept deportation flights.

Poole is a Cuban-American writer and photographer whose book La paloma y la ley on migration from Cuba to the U.S. was a 2016 Time photobook of the year


Tags: Cuba, Migration, Milennials in Politics, US-Mexico border
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