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The subject of migration is a key factor in US-Cuba relations. In the years following the 1959 Revolution, several hundred thousand Cubans fled the island, including the approximately 260,000 refugees who were officially airlifted from Cuba during the United States-Cuban Freedom Flights program of 1965-71. In mid-1980 the massive exodus of some 125,000 Cubans constituted a crisis in US-Cuban relations. After more than 10,000 disaffected Cubans stormed into the Peruvian embassy in Havana in search of political asylum and safe conduct out of Cuba, Castro announced that all who wished to leave were free to assemble at the port of Mariel. Between 1959 and the conclusion of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, an estimated one million Cubans has left the island permanently.

In 1984, the United States and Cuba negotiated an agreement to resume normal immigration, interrupted in the wake of the Mariel boatlift who were "excludable" under U.S. law. Cuba suspended this agreement in May 1985 following the U.S. initiation of Radio Marti broadcasts to the island, but it was reinstated in November 1987.

The mid-1990s saw another migration crisis that challenged US-Cuba relations. The economic and political crisis brought on by the cut off of Soviet assistance fueled the frustration with declining living standards. Prolonged, unannounced power outages, limited food availability, and rough treatment for some Cubans attempting to migrate to the United States sparked demonstrations in Havana in August of 1994. Fidel Castro responded to the growing unrest by once again opening the safety valve and letting disaffected Cubans take to the sea. Some 30,000 Cubans set sail for the United States.

Cubans outside US Interests SectionIn the wake of the summer 1994 migration crisis, the United States and Cuba agreed in September 1994 to direct Cuban migration into safe, legal and orderly channels and to continue regular review of the migration situation and proper implementation of the accords. The U.S. committed itself to issue travel documents to a minimum of 20,000 Cuban migrants each year, and Cuba pledged to discourage irregular and unsafe departures. Under a May 1995 companion agreement, the United States began returning Cubans interdicted at sea or entering the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay who did not have a well-founded fear of persecution if returned. For its part, Cuba agreed to reintegrate the returnees into Cuban society, with no action to be taken against the returned migrants as a consequence of their attempt to immigrate illegally. The U.S. Interests Section monitors Cuban compliance with that provision through regular visits to the homes of returnees throughout Cuba. Interdicted Cubans who can demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution in Cuba still are not brought into the United States, but are resettled in third countries.

Many lives have been saved that might otherwise have been lost at sea because of our success in directing migration pressures from Cuba in a "safe, legal, and orderly" direction. It is important that Cubans on the island understand that the only safe and legal way to immigrate to the United States is through one of the programs available at the U.S. Interests Section. Legal programs include immigrant visas, refugee admissions and the Special Cuban Migration Program. Immigrant visas are available to anyone who has a qualified sponsor in the United States. U.S. citizens can petition for their spouses, children (including adult and married children), parents, and siblings. Permanent residents of the United States can petition for their spouses, minor children, and unmarried adult children. The waiting period varies, however, for the different categories.

Those who have been persecuted in Cuba, or who fear persecution (on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion), may apply for admission through our in-country refugee procession unit at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. From 3,500 to 4,000 refugees and family members are admitted to the United States through this program year.

The Special Cuban Migration Program (SCMP), or "Cuban lottery," is open to all adult Cubans, whether or not they qualify for our immigrant visa or refugee programs. The SCMP was initiated to bring the total number of Cuban immigrants up to the 20,000 that we have committed to authorize annually. Entry for the SCMP was held for one month in both 1994 and 1996. The last SCMP period ended July 15, 1998. Applications are held and drawn from over a two-year period.

All registrations will be forwarded to the United States where a computer will randomly select winners who will be scheduled for an interview by USINT. USINT will interview winners of this lottery through the year 2000.

At the interview, winning registrants must be able to answer yes to two of the three following questions:

  • Have you completed a secondary (technico medio, bachiller) or higher level of education?
  • Do you have at least three years of work experience?
  • Do you have any relatives residing in the United States?
Registrants must also meet the medical, criminal and public charge requirements of the U.S. immigration law before they can migrate.


[Last update: March 16, 2000]

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