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Havana, Cuba – Marco has offered his house for sale, a concrete one-bedroom home outside the Cuban capital, just blocks from the beach. He hopes to sell almost everything he has to finance the trip out of Cuba.
“Everything is for sale…everything,” he says.
Marco does not want to use his full name because he fears he will face government repercussions for speaking out about his plans to leave the country.
If he gets out, he will become the latest wave of Cubans to leave the island in decades. Many try to cross overland from Mexico to the United States. In April alone, US authorities registered more than 35,000 Cuban citizens on the southwestern US border – almost the same as the entire 2021 fiscal year, to me US Customs and Border Protection. They are fleeing mainly because Cuba is struggling through a severe economic downturn. As leaders from both hemispheres gather at the Summit of the Americas this week in Los Angeles, immigration will be a major topic — but communist-controlled Cuba is not invited.
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He lost his job and the situation got worse
Marco lost his job as an architect during the coronavirus pandemic. He says the economic situation worsened last year when the government abolished the dual currency system and kept only the Cuban peso. Inflation has gone up — and so is state control of everything, he says.
And he knows that starting a new life will be difficult, he says, “but I will at least try. Here I can’t even do it.”
But it wasn’t an easy getaway. Marco was asking for $15,000 for his house. Now he says he will take $8000.
A Havana real estate broker describes the housing market as “hunting season,” because so many properties are for sale.
He requests that his name be used only as Alfredo, so that he can speak freely about his work. Alfredo sells everything in US dollars and all transactions are done outside Cuba. It has more than 2000 listings available.
He says, “If in one building there are 24 houses, 20 of them are for sale. And the other four are thinking of selling, don’t lie!”
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Inequality is increasing
The Cuban government blames the dismal economy and mass immigration to the United States, not only the decades-old US embargo, but also the severe economic sanctions imposed by former President Donald Trump that are still in place.
Cuba’s critical tourism sector has collapsed, especially during the pandemic, and the country cannot find the money to buy vital goods – everything from basic foodstuffs to fuel oil. According to Cuban economist Omar Everlini, the price of a piece of fruit or meat is now 1,000% more than last year.
Inequality in Cuba is increasing.
“There is now a clear distinction in society between those who live on a government salary — it has just risen to about $50 a month — and those who get help from their relatives abroad,” Everlini says.
Some go to Panama, then north to the United States
And those who can, leave. The lines outside foreign embassies are long. A woman receives a call from her husband while waiting in a Havana park near the Panamanian embassy. She only wants to know by her first name Maria because she is also afraid to talk about plans to get off the island.
The couple is trying to get a transit visa to Panama. “Then we will go to Nicaragua and look for work,” she says. The visa requirements there have just been raised for Cubans. From there they head north to the US border.
It is Cuban youth who are driving the exodus. In the lobby of a dilapidated building in Old Havana, a group of teenagers are ringing and singing in front of a video camera.
An 18-year-old says he wants more opportunities. He uses the stage name El Chulito and does not want to give his real name or talk about politics. He says it’s about music and the only economy for that outside Cuba.