Migration, Brain Drain, and Cuba-U.S. Relations

| April 18, 2018
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A boat full of Cubans arrives in Key West, Florida, 1965. (CREDIT: DukeUnivLibraries via Flickr)

The traditional debate about migration in developed countries often takes place between two poles: open borders versus restrictive policies. Political proposals typically turn on the question of whether there is a duty to admit immigrants and, if so, under which conditions and circumstances. Reality, however, is much more complex. One bilateral relationship that highlights this complexity is that between Cuba and the United States. A careful reading of the history of Cuba-U.S. relations over the last sixty years highlights a number of the dynamics of migration that are often overlooked in the standard debate, particularly with regard to brain drain.

This essay explores some of the peculiarities and effects of U.S. migratory policy towards Cuba. As this case shows, brain drain dynamics can complicate debates on the ethics of migration. More importantly though, the use of migratory policy as a coercive tool in the Cuba-U.S. relationship sheds light on a range of under-explored issues related to justice in migration and, more broadly, in international relations.


Migration in Cuba-U.S. Relations


Migration has been a component of the complex relations between Cuba and United States for more than two centuries. The presence of Cuban immigrants in the United States can be traced back to at least to 1820, and perhaps even further. Lawful permanent residency was, nevertheless, relatively rare. From 1820 to 1959, the total number of Cubans obtaining lawful permanent resident status in the United States was 181,596.1 Heretofore, Cuban emigration was driven by economic and cultural reasons, though there were some periods in which political processes caused spikes in emigration, such as the Cuban independence wars (1868–1895) and Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship (1952–1958).

The Cuban revolution had a dramatic effect on the bilateral relationship in general and the nature of Cuban migration in particular. From 1960 to 1969 alone, more than 200,000 Cubans obtained lawful permanent residence in the United States.2 A majority of the Cuban immigrants settled in or eventually moved to Florida, in particular the area of Miami, where they built an ethnic enclave.

A Cuban-American family prepares sandwiches in anticipation of the arrival of Cubans during the Camarioca boatlift of 1965. (CREDIT: DukeUnivLibraries via Flickr)

A fundamental aspect of the early stages of the post-revolutionary Cuban migratory process to United States was a disproportionately high percentage of educated individuals. Of the Cubans who arrived legally in the United States between 1959 and 1962, 31 percent of those at working age had held professional, semi-professional, or managerial occupations in Cuba; and 33 percent were clerks or vendors. According to the pre-revolution 1953 census in Cuba, the same groups represented, respectively, 9 percent and 14 percent of the population.3 To put these percentages in perspective, between 1959 and 1962, Cuba experienced a net migration loss of approximately 183,000 citizens, with more than 80 percent of them going to the United States (this figure includes the emigrations of hundreds of thousands over the four years as well as the repatriation of tens of thousands, mainly in 1959).4

The interruption of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1961 was followed by the suspension of all commercial flights, thus effectively stopping regular migration into the United States. The Camarioca boatlift crisis in 1965 led to an agreement that allowed the creation of an air bridge connecting Miami and Varadero.5 This started a second major wave of Cuban immigration into the United States, characterized by annual migration flows roughly on par with those of the first wave: an average of 44,000 per year from 1965–1972.6 The available evidence shows that these first two waves (1959–1962 and 1965–1972) included the majority of Cuban pre-revolution upper, upper-middle, and middle classes.7 That is, the sectors with the highest levels of education, and with the largest proportion of professionals and intellectuals. In short, Cuba was being depleted of its professionals and skilled administrators faster than new generations could substitute for those who left the country. Among other impacts, development projects began unraveling in the midst of a severe lack of human capital.

Why did so many Cubans, including so many highly trained professionals, decide to go to United States? There were three major factors. First, the Cuban revolution had generated a deep transformation of the economic, social, and political structures, with a degree of radicalism that exerted a significant level of outward pressure on wide swathes of the Cuban population.

Second, the process was stimulated and perpetuated by policies designed and enforced by the American government. This migration was interpreted by U.S. officials and elites as a mass of refugees fleeing Communism. In the context of the Cold War, policymakers saw the benefits of incentivizing emigration out of Cuba. Thus they pursued a two-pronged strategy to raise the costs of remaining in Cuba and lower the obstacles for coming to the United States.

To raise the costs, the American government levied extensive economic sanctions against Cuba. On February 3, 1962, President Kennedy signed Proclamation 3447 officially establishing the economic embargo against Cuba.8  The embargo, referred to in Cuba as a blockade, had effectively started with the first sanctions in 1959, but the proclamation gave it a visible shape and name. The embargo is in reality a dense network of policies and laws formulated and enforced in different moments. For example, the Trading with the Enemy Act, passed in 1917,9 has been systematically applied to the island for decades, despite the fact that the two countries have never been at war.

The sanctions cut the ties between the island and its traditional markets in the United States, which at its peak during the first half of the twentieth century had accounted for nearly 90 percent of Cuba’s international commerce, and accompanied by pressure from the United States on other governments to follow the same policy. Several economic crises affected the island in subsequent decades, either generated or aggravated by the sanctions.

The reorganization of the economy following the revolution was a complicated process that led to the incorporation of Cuba into the economic cooperation system centered in the Soviet Union. The collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe and the implosion of the Soviet Union from 1989 to 1991 deprived Cuba of its fundamental foreign markets for a second time, while the embargo remained in place. The consequence was a deep economic and social crisis. The economy contracted by 35 percent between 1989 and 1993 and livelihood was severely compromised.10 Washington’s answer was to tighten the embargo by passing the Torricelli Act in 1992 and the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, further reinforcing the sanctions and legalizing their extraterritoriality by punishing companies based in third countries for doing business with or in Cuba.

In addition to driving up the costs of remaining in Cuba, over the course of the same years the American government removed many barriers to citizenship for Cubans resettling in the United States. In 1966 Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act, allowing Cubans to qualify for legal permanent residency in United States after two years, giving them a fast and relatively safe track to citizenship.11 In 1976 the waiting time was reduced to one year.12 This policy came to complement a wide array of programs for Cuban immigrants, starting in 1959.

From 1992 to 1994, in the midst of the economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the number of immigration visas issued by the United States to Cubans was reduced to a low of 806 per year, precisely at the moment when applications were skyrocketing. However, because illegal immigrants from Cuba were received as refugees,13 illegal migration was in fact stimulated. This combination triggered a migratory crisis in 1994 that ended in a bilateral agreement, including Washington’s commitment to issue a minimum of 20,000 immigrant visas to Cubans every year. In 1995, President Bill Clinton introduced the wet foot-dry foot policy, which established that illegal migrants intercepted at high seas would be returned to Cuba, whereas those who made it to U.S. soil would be accepted as refugees.14 Despite the changes, the core tenets of U.S. migratory policy towards Cuba remained.

Brain Drain and Medical Professionals


One U.S. policy deserves special consideration: the 2006 Cuban Medical Professional Parole program (CMPP) created by the George W. Bush administration. Among the strategies to overcome the economic crisis, Cuba’s government gave priority to various forms of the knowledge economy. Central to this plan was the export of medical services. Consequently the country’s education system began training medical professionals who have since become well-regarded worldwide. Through different cooperation agreements, tens of thousands have served in dozens of countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

A Cuban doctor administers a vaccination at a camp for displaced Haitians in Port-au-Prince, 2010. Cuba has a long history of medical cooperation in Haiti. (CREDIT: United Nations Photo via Flickr)

The CMPP specifically targeted Cuban medical professionals already serving abroad, offering them a fast track to immigrate to the United States if they abandoned their positions and presented themselves to an American embassy.15 The intent was clear: to harm Cuba’s cooperation with other countries, to curtail the inflow of money in the form of payments for these programs, and to drain medical doctors and other medical professionals form the country.16

Of course, attracting educated immigrants to fill in the gaps of the American labor force has long been a traditional policy, reflected in the existence of the H-1B visa. Under this umbrella, scientists, engineers, and medical doctors have gone to work in North American institutions and companies, thus helping to sustain the institutions’ privileged position worldwide. It has become a cornerstone for the American economy and for American universities.17

But while encouraging brain drain more generally to fill gaps in the American labor force should be subjected to ethical scrutiny in its own right, the drain of medical professionals from poor countries specifically has received the most attention. This should come as no surprise, as the availability and quality of health care has a major impact on essential health indicators, which are considered by leading scholars such as Angus Deaton to be a fundamental source of inequality between countries.18 Of special relevance is the case of Sub-Saharan Africa, where the brain drain reduces the already limited ability of the region to cope with the challenge of multiple infectious diseases.19

A fundamental factor determining the migration of medical professionals is the economic inequality between countries.20 These inequalities are not accidental but structural components of the modern world order, understood here as the world hierarchy of power distribution, wealth, and development. And the policies that these powerful countries put in place serve to reinforce these dynamics, often through explicit poaching of “top talent.”

The existing research on brain drain in the Global South demonstrates the depth and gravity of its effects, and also the importance of international politics and policies in its perpetuation.21 Development is connected directly to science, innovation, and the application of advanced technologies, techniques, and ideas. A critical variable is the availability of scientists, professionals, and skilled workers and managers. In the vast majority of underdeveloped countries, education systems are insufficient to cover the basic demand. In a worldwide competition for talent, these countries will always be on the losing side, thus becoming exporters of human capital, when they need more than they can produce.

Cuba is losing human capital in a similar way. Its education system is much stronger than those of other Global South countries, and produces a greater quantity and quality of human capital, proportional to the size of its population. But by the same token, the drain has become even more intense, particularly among younger generations. However, as we have seen, what makes the Cuba-U.S. case particularly egregious in terms of the responsibility of the U.S. for the harm against Cuba is that it is not simply the byproduct of inequalities and broad migratory policies, but an intended outcome of targeted policies, seeking to stop Cuba’s development to facilitate a political change.




Social change and social conflict in Cuba converged with economic sanctions, attractive policies, and legislation implemented by Washington to extract hundreds of thousands of individuals from the island. The implication is that the immigration of Cubans to United States has been directly and indirectly stimulated by the American government. It is clear that, given the size and composition of the flows, over the years Cuba has suffered a significant drain of human capital, particularly of professionals and skilled workers. The traditional debate on immigration in wealthy countries, namely open versus closed borders, is important in itself, because it deals with the value of the inflows for those societies, and addresses relevant ethical questions. However, the Cuba-U.S. relationship shows that advocating open borders is not as ethically straightforward as one may think, and that sometimes open door policies have nefarious purposes. This adds an often-overlooked dimension to the debate. Thus political theorists debating migration would do well to widen their lens and consider a broader range of structures and policies in their ethical analyses.

Ernesto Dominguez Lopez is a professor, researcher, and former director of the Centro de Estudios Hemisféricos y Sobre Estados Unidos (CEHSEU) of the Universidad de La Habana, Cuba.

Editors’ note: The editors wish to acknowledge the contribution of Professor Joy Gordon, Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J. Professor in Social Ethics at Loyola University-Chicago, whose initiative and support have made the publication of this essay possible.

Author’s note: I appreciate the support of Joy Gordon, professor at Loyola University-Chicago. I also wish to thank Robert Budron for his contribution to this work.


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  5. A touristic site, approximately 100 miles to the east of Havana.
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