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U.S. and Cuba Hold First Migration Talks in Four Years

A record number of Cuban migrants traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border in March. What’s driving the exodus?

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
An old American car drives past the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
An old American car drives past the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
An old American car drives past the U.S. Embassy in Havana on March 2. YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at U.S.-Cuba talks in Washington, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s trip to India, and more news worth following from around the world.

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Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at U.S.-Cuba talks in Washington, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s trip to India, and more news worth following from around the world.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

After starting your day with Morning Brief, wind down each evening with the Slatest, Slate’s daily newsletter featuring the best of that day’s coverage of news, politics, the courts, and more. Sign up today.


U.S.-Cuba Talks Begin in Washington 

U.S. and Cuban officials sit down in Washington today for the highest-level talks since U.S. President Joe Biden took office.

The talks represent a thaw of sorts: Officials have been meeting biannually to discuss migration since the 1990s. Four years ago, the meetings stopped after the Trump administration effectively shuttered U.S. immigration operations in its Havana embassy over concerns sparked by the much-hyped ailment known as “Havana syndrome.”

But there is urgency to go along with the thaw. March saw a record number of Cubans attempting to cross into the United States via its Mexican border, part of an overall two-decade high in border apprehensions. (Mexicans made up the majority of those processed, with Cubans the second highest. Ukrainians, a much rarer sight at the border, were the ninth-largest nationality represented in the figures, as 3,274 of them made the journey in March.)

Why has there been such an increase at the Mexican border when the United States is just 100 miles from Cuban soil? “Its become clear to Cubans how dangerous the maritime route to the U.S. is. And if theres a way to successfully travel via land, its very likely that would be preferred,” Jessica Bolter, a U.S. immigration expert at the Migration Policy Institute, told Foreign Policy. “We saw this shift to the land route really start about a decade ago, and once the shift starts, then theres a cycle where thats the route that theres the most information about. Thats the route that peoples friends and family have taken.”

Bolter said a number of push and pull factors are convincing Cubans to make the journey to the U.S.-Mexican border: an embargo-destroyed economy made worse by a pandemic-induced drop in tourism, a repressive political environment, and an easier travel route via Nicaragua, which has dropped transit visa requirements for Cuban nationals.

But the United States shares much of the blame. Cubans have been all but frozen out of the U.S. visa system by the Trump-era decision to halt operations in Havana. (Thanks to a series of laws passed since the Cold War, Cubans receive preferential treatment in U.S. immigration policy. For example, under U.S. law, the United States can legally admit at least 20,000 Cubans each year, and Cubans who arrive legally and stay for one year can apply for permanent residency, a process that takes at least three times as long for other arrivals.)

The embassy troubles are prompting many to try their luck elsewhere; some Cubans have traveled 1,700 miles south to Guyana to go through the visa process.

Meanwhile, in an ugly game of hot potato, Cuba has refused to accept returning migrants sent back by U.S. authorities (who have applied a rule known as Title 42 to immediately refuse entry to migrants without having to process asylum requests). A policy that was possibly designed to bring Washington to the negotiating table has also given Cubans an incentive to take the risk in Mexico.

At the beginning of March, the Biden administration moved to increase staffing levels at its Havana embassy, but it’s not happening fast enough, the Cuban government says.

“We do not see any justification for not giving all visas to Cuban emigrants in Havana and forcing the majority of Cubans to travel [to Guyana], with the costs that this implies,” Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Josefina Vidal told reporters on Tuesday.

Vidal slammed U.S. immigration policy as “differentiated” and “incoherent,” citing the economic support it has given Latin American countries to address the root causes of migration while applying “maximum pressure to the economic order and through coercive measures” in the case of Cuba.

Although ending the Cuban embargo may be beyond the scope of today’s meeting, some conciliatory gestures could begin addressing the root causes of migration. Mariakarla Nodarse Venancio, a Cuba expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, told FP that the quickest things the Biden administration could do to help would be to ramp up consular services and follow through on campaign promises, such as lifting restrictions on remittances.

“A broader, larger dialogue is definitely needed,” Nodarse Venancio said. “But also the Biden administration needs to keep their word because it cannot only be about having Cuba accept deportees. If the situation on the island does not improve, then its not going to dissuade Cubans from migrating.”


What We’re Following Today

Johnson to India. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson begins a two-day trip to India, becoming the latest Western official to court New Delhi as the Indian government maintains its neutral stance over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Johnson will begin his visit in Ahmedabad, in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat.

Mariupol’s reckoning. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov boasted on Wednesday that Russian forces would be in control of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol “before lunchtime or after lunch” today, predicting the defeat of Ukrainian fighters holed up in the Azovstal steel plant. FP’s Amy Mackinnon explored just what kind of impact the fall of Mariupol would have on the course of the war, from propaganda value to its strategic fallout.


Keep an Eye On

Sherman in Brussels. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman leads the U.S. delegation in Brussels today for U.S.-EU talks focused on China. The next day, she participates in further U.S.-EU talks, this time on the Indo-Pacific.

Arab League meets on Israel unrest. Jordan hosts an emergency meeting of Arab League foreign ministers to discuss recent clashes in Jerusalem surrounding the al-Aqsa mosque, for which Jordan serves as custodian. Jordan’s King Abdullah II on Monday blamed Israel for “provocative acts” in the mosque compound and for violating “the legal and historic status quo” governing the site.


Odds and Ends

Taiwanese television station CTS apologized on Wednesday for “causing public panic” by mistakenly airing news alerts describing a Chinese assault on the island.

On-screen alerts that aired included “New Taipei City hit by communist armys guided missiles” and “Vessels exploded, facilities and ships damaged in Taipei port.”

CTS said the alerts had been created as part of drills for the local fire department and were not meant to air.

The Taiwanese TV station was not the only institution in a skittish mood on Wednesday. U.S. Capitol Police evacuated the Capitol building yesterday evening, citing a “probable threat” from a nearby aircraft. The aircraft in question turned out to be carrying the Golden Knights, a U.S. army parachute team scheduled to land at the Washington Nationals baseball stadium as part of pregame entertainment.


 FP’s Robbie Gramer contributed to todays brief.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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