As the clock strikes 9 in the morning, Carlos Alonso takes a long drag from his first cigarette of the day and casts a wistful gaze over the empty chairs that surround him. The bar that he has managed since 2016 feels like a desolate, haunted house in the quiet town of old Trinidad, located on the southern coast of Cuba. As he surveys the empty space around him, Carlos begins to see the phantoms of his past – the ghosts of his former employees who are no longer there. He can almost hear Diana as she expertly prepares her signature mojitos in the kitchen, and Ysabel’s sweet voice welcoming customers at the entrance.
«They once joked that the bar is like a consulate where anyone who works here gets a visa», Carlos recalls with a chuckle. The memory brings a bittersweet feeling as he now has to deal with new employees, who he hopes will become his friends too. For him, his bar has always been a place where friends run a business together.
Carlos effortlessly connects with those around him. But this talent is a double-edged sword. The real challenge lies in saying goodbye, as his closest companions inevitably have departed the country, leaving behind emotional and professional gaps that are difficult to fill. These absences are a heavy burden on Carlos and other young Cubans who are forced to bear the weight of separation from their loved ones and the feeling of being stranded inside a nation that is losing its brightest and best to the lure of opportunity elsewhere.
«It gives me a tremendous downer, you know?» Carlos says with a demotivated tone. «I used to pour my heart and soul into this bar – personally greeting customers, socializing with them, and ensuring that everything was perfect – the music, the service, and that my staff were the coolest in the city. However, seeing so many people leave has led to an emotional decline, particularly towards the business. I’ve lost my passion, my love for it. I don’t know, it’s just sad».
Carlos believes that this sadness is rather a shared experience among his fellow Cubans. With limited opportunities and the constant struggle for basic necessities, the younger generation has fewer reasons to frequent his bar. The decline in tourism has further added to his financial struggles. Carlos’ bar was originally intended to cater to the student and intellectual community, a group that he feels is particularly prone to emigration.
In 2022, 224.000 Cubans crossed the US border, more than in the 80s and 90s, the BBC reported. This exodus is taking place amidst a profound economic and political crisis that has rocked the foundations of the nation. Inflation has skyrocketed – historical records have been broken -, food and fuel have become scarce, draining the motivation of its citizens. For those who remain, life goes on with the uncertainty of how to make a living, the anguish of being separated from loved ones, and the bleak prospects of a future that seems to hold no promise of improvement.
As Carlos lights his cigarette and takes a deep breath, he knows that someday his turn will come. He realizes that he too may be forced to leave everything behind for a one-way journey. Though he doesn’t know how, as resources and opportunities are scarce, the desire is there, quietly waiting to awaken from its slumber.
Fix the mess
Yadira Álvarez, a 43-year-old professor at the University of Pedagogical Sciences in Havana, has come close to leaving Cuba on four separate occasions. She has found herself in many situations, from bidding farewell to her best friend who was embarking on an illegal trip, to being stranded in Mexico during a flight transfer and even receiving a proposal from a friend to cross over to the US. On top of this, she has been presented with the opportunity to marry a friend residing in Norway, or to stay in Colombia with some relatives.
But she said no – «because of fear, because of love, and because of responsibility for my people», she writes to me in a tone that makes me imagine her sighing.
The decision to stay in Cuba has been challenging, as she has faced various temptations to leave, each with their own set of obstacles. She refused to risk her life by crossing the Florida Strait in a precarious boat or navigate through treacherous North American jungles that could leave her son without a mother, a fate suffered by over 120 Cubans since 2021, according to independent media outlet El Toque.
She did not want to jeopardize her life by entering into a fake marriage that would ultimately lead to misunderstandings. Nor face Cuban immigration penalties that could prevent her from returning for a visit, something that has been imposed on many Cubans who travel for work with official passports. Those who stay abroad are considered «deserters», which comes with a ban on entering the country for five to eight years.
Not emigrating can be a daunting task as many believe is a sign of failure, and Cubans are often harshly judged for it. «It saddens me to know that when I stand in front of my students, the majority have their sights set on leaving Cuba», she says. That is why she thinks that by staying and working towards a better future for Cuba, she is helping those who may wish to emigrate in the future. «If I can’t leave and others can’t either, someone has to work to make this livable», she tells me with determination. «I want to see what I can do to help fix this mess we have here».
It was lunch time when Jorge* received a call from the United States. It was his brother, who had just arrived in the country pursuing the American dream. He put away the cutlery and raised his hand over his forehead. He was shocked and could not help but feel frozen. His beloved brother had bought a plane ticket to Nicaragua and paid a smuggler to take him to the Mexico-US border and chose to keep it a secret. «It was a normal thing to do when you decide to undertake an illegal trip», he understands now.
«Experiencing my brother’s departure has been the toughest moment I’ve gone through. We were too damn’ close», he recalls. «If I don’t leave, it’s because I understand what it would mean for my family. My parents are too old to start over somewhere else, and I can’t bear to put them through another painful goodbye», Jorge explains.
As he thinks about his brother’s departure, Jorge can see the sadness and loneliness in his father’s eyes. «My brother was the glue that held us together, always organizing family gatherings and helping us in any way he could. Even from afar, he has helped in things like paying my rent», he says. His brother’s absence has left a void in their lives, and Jorge knows that he could never replace him.
The issue of migration in Cuba is not a recent development, nor is it unique to the current economic and political crisis. In fact, it is a historical reality that has persisted for decades. Throughout the socialist era, several waves of migration occurred, largely depending on the economic and political climate. The Mariel boatlift crisis of 1980 and the Balseros crisis of 1994 are among the most well-known examples. Cuban society has long been defined by a sense of separation and loss, with families and communities torn apart by emigration.
In 2015, despite the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US and the subsequent economic and political resurgence, a significant number of Cubans still expressed their desire to leave the country. A survey conducted by Univision Noticias, which interviewed 1,500 residents on the island, found that 55% of respondents expressed their wish to emigrate. This statistic is a testament to the ongoing struggles and challenges faced by many Cubans, despite the efforts to improve the country’s economic situation.
Carlos, Yadira, and Jorge are among the many Cubans struggling with the current economic crisis, which has been compounded by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the US-imposed commercial embargo, and the inherent contradictions of Cuba’s economic and political system.
«My economic situation is good, but I am aware that even having money doesn’t guarantee being able to get things in a store», said Jorge. «Moreover, inflation is terrible: no one likes to pay 10 times more than the real price of some basic item. And other things like fuel, electricity, transportation… you have to be blind not to see the problems».
A report from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Spain on Cuba reveals that the country’s GDP has plummeted by around 10% over the last two years. Official sources indicate that inflation reached 77% in 2021, which was seven times higher than the salary increase announced by president Miguel Diaz-Canel during the same period.
As a result, many people are choosing to leave the country in search of better opportunities, worsening the situation for those who remain. The current migratory wave has resulted in an extraordinary deficit of labor force, according to Ernesto González, a former professor at the Central University “Marta Abreu” of Las Villas. Many of those leaving are highly skilled and well-educated, which generates a serious decapitalization, says the expert.
Ernesto González, who has a master’s degree in Population Studies and has extensively researched migrations in Cuba, has also seen most of his fellow classmates and friends leave forever. He is now managing a farm with his father, like Carlos, Yadira and Jorge, doing his best to “fix” the country.
*For security reasons, the name of this source has been changed. The interviewee is afraid that his employers will take reprisals against him for offering statements to a foreign media outlet.
Luis Orlando León Carpio is a Cuban journalist living between Denmark and the Czech Republic. For Scomodo he reported on the delicate condition of those among the Cuban population who have decided to remain on the island, despite an exodus that has shaken the nation’s foundations. This is the first article of a Scomodo series with contributions by under-30 journalists from all over the world.