Cuba: Limited Opportunity Drives Migration

By Ricardo Torres*

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A generation of young Cubans is eager to leave the island because they feel that recent reforms have opened scant opportunities for them, and they see a much brighter economic future for themselves in the United States or Latin America. Cuba has made vast investments over the years in education, generating a population with high levels of human capital and technological potential, but job opportunities – in the declining state sector, in the 200 or so occupations now authorized for cuentapropismo, and in the slowly opening cooperative sector – hold little promise for Cubans under 30. Although statistics on the socioeconomic background of migrants are lacking, a strong body of anecdotal information indicates that this generation, with aspirations of a career that matches their intellectual and technical capabilities, is concluding that there is little for them in Cuba. For a number of reasons, the conditions necessary to start a new business – such as financing and markets – are simply not there.

Mainstream technologies that are now common in modern societies are lacking in Cuba, hindering it from unleashing the potential of its human capital. Inconsistent and excessively controlled access to computer technology and the internet is also discouraging youths to have hope. Free education, healthcare, and a low crime rate set Cuba apart from most other countries in the region producing large numbers of migrants, but those same factors have created expectations among youths that they should have fulfilling, better-paying jobs – which simply are not abundant. Moreover, people under 35 have fewer emotional or historical attachments to the Revolution. They did not experience the purported “Golden Age” of the 1980s, and the “revolutionary and socialist” Cuba they know is one of only economic hardship.

For migrants elsewhere in the region – driven by endemic poverty, violence, and weak, corrupt institutions – young Cubans’ reasons for leaving the island may appear exaggerated. Cubans’ education, health, and relative security, however, do not discount their profound desire, engendered in part by the Communist Party’s own unfulfilled rhetoric about a better life, to seek better fortunes outside their country. They have been trained for knowledge-based economy, but Cuba’s current development model relegates them to low value-added occupations that cannot generate the rewards to which they aspire (or the prosperity that the society needs and in principle could achieve). U.S.-Cuba normalization, particularly if the two governments allow capital and goods to flow freely, and accelerated reforms in Cuba hold some promise of reducing migration pressures from the island in the future, but persuading Cubans that building a better life on the island rather than emigrating elsewhere will take time and vision.

December 17, 2015

*Ricardo Torres, a CLALS Research Fellow, is Professor of Economics and Cuban economy at the University of Havana, and is affiliated with the UH’s Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy.

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