From the Caribbean to the USA, via Brazil: an interminable migration route


Both poverty and political persecution have forced many Haitians and Cubans to flee their respective countries over the past few decades. Most of them hope to rebuild their lives in the United States, where large immigrant communities from these two island countries have become established over the years.

Over the past few months, this migratory movement has intensified. Moreover, many Haitians and Cubans are also taking a new route towards the US. Even though both island nations are not far from US shores, it is common for people seeking to migrate to the United States to travel through roughly a dozen Latin American countries – including Brazil – before reaching the promised land. Our Observers described what it is like to undertake this expensive and risky journey.

The number of Cubans and Haitians arriving at US borders is at an all-time high, according to numbers provided by the US Customs and Border Protection. While people leave their homelands for a variety of reasons, many of them end up taking the same complex, winding path towards the United States.

Source: US Customs and Border Protection. They did not provide figures on the number of Haitians who arrived before 2014.

Why so many people are choosing to migrate now

Cubans fear an end to the "Cuban Adjustment Act"

There is a long history of Cubans seeking refuge on American soil, many of them fleeing the Castro regime or abject poverty. Since 1966, Cubans seeking to migrate to the United States have benefited from a law called the “Cuban Adjustment Act”. This law gives Cuban nationals the right to stay in the United States as soon as they touch its soil. Moreover, after just one year in the United States, they are eligible for a permanent residency card.

However, many Cubans are afraid that this law will be repealed because of the rebuilding of diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba, which began in December 2014. This fear has pushed many Cubans to depart sooner rather than later.

Anita (not her real name) is just one Cuban national who has chosen to migrate in the past few months. This 28-year-old Cuban told FRANCE 24 why she left her home last June.

There is no freedom of expression in Cuba – if you criticise the government, you risk going to prison. Moreover, on average, people make about 20 euros a month: it’s not possible to live on that kind of money. My husband and I sold our home so that I could afford to leave Cuba. I am travelling alone. For the time being, he has stayed behind; he will join me when we have enough money to pay for the trip.

Like Anita, many people have to sell their belongings to pay for their journey, which includes fees for transportation (including airfare, train ticket, etc) as well as the price of hiring people smugglers at various points in the journey. Others dig deep into their savings to foot the bill. Often, an extended family will pool together resources to pay for the passage of one member.

Haitian workers hit by Brazil’s economic crisis

Different factors are pushing increasing numbers of Haitians to seek to migrate to the United States as well. Many of those currently undertaking the journey first spent time working in Brazil, where large numbers of Haitians sought work after an earthquake ravaged their island in 2010. That’s what happened to Johnny, who is 28.

I’m a mason by trade. For the past four years, I’ve been in Brazil working on construction projects for the World Cup and the Olympic Games. However, Brazil’s economic situation is worsening and there’s been an increase in unemployment. Some Brazilians even accuse us of stealing their work. That’s why I decided to leave Brazil in early April with my wife and our baby.

This map shows different migration routes taken by Cubans and Haitians seeking to reach the United States.

Blue demarcates routes taken by Cubans travelling to the US, while red shows the most common migration routes used by Haitians. Once they reach Colombia, both groups take a similar path across Central America (shown in green).



Travelling south to start a journey north: from the Caribbean to Brazil

Haitians aren’t the only people whose journey often starts in Brazil. Anita explained that many Cubans also begin their journey north by travelling through Brazil.

Taking a boat directly to Florida is risky. Your boat could capsize. Moreover, it’s easy to get sent back to Cuba if you get stopped at sea by the US coastguard. In addition, it costs about $10,000 [equivalent to roughly 8,830 euros] to travel this 150-kilometre stretch of water. That’s two times more expensive than travelling through Brazil and then other Latin American countries. Also, it is easy to get papers in Brazil.

To start my journey, a friend and I flew from Havana to Guyana, which Cubans can enter without a visa. Then, we travelled on a minibus to the Brazilian border. To cross over, we had to pay Cuban smugglers about 600 dollars [about 539 euros]. However, once we got into Brazil, it only took us a day to get work permits!

Yet it is relatively recent phenomenon for Cubans to travel to Brazil. For years, it was common for Cubans to travel to Ecuador [which they could enter without a visa] before continuing their journey northward. However, in December 2015, Ecuador toughened up its policies towards Cubans in an attempt to stem the flow of migrants across its borders. Now, many Cubans travel to Brazil to start their long journey to the US.


From Brazil to Colombia: Turbo, a chokepoint on the migration route

After arriving safely in Brazil, Anita and her friend continued their journey.

We travelled by car to the border between Brazil and Venezuela. We crossed it illegally – but it was easy because all we had to do was bribe the border guards with $800 dollars [705 euros]. We travelled across Venezuela, but when we reached the Colombian border, it was closed. We had to pay motorcycle drivers to take us across illegally, through the jungle [Editor’s note: the border opened again in August after being closed for about a year]. Then, we took a bus to Turbo, a town on the border with Panama.”

After leaving Brazil and travelling through several different countries, Johnny, our Haitian Observer, and his family also arrived in Turbo, Colombia.

We took a boat up the Amazon river for two weeks to reach Peru. There, we obtained the papers that would allow us to continue our journey. We flew to the capital, Lima, where we got on a bus to Ecuador. We found it easy to enter Ecuador as well. We travelled across Ecuador on bus, but it got complicated when we wanted to cross the Colombian border.

We ended up paying a Cuban smuggler $200 [177 euros]. He came to get us at night and he drove us several hours to the border. Then, a second Colombian smuggler, who was working with the first, took over. We had to walk through the jungle for several days with him before finally making it to Turbo.

A large group of Haitian and Cuban immigrants – including Anita – were stuck in Turbo for several weeks after the president of Panama decided to close the border with Colombia on May 9. His aim was to try to slow the flow of illegal immigration.

For weeks, about 800 people – most of whom were Cuban – stayed in this hostel in Turbo before it was evacuated by Colombian authorities in late August. This video was published on Facebook by Odeiky Hernandez Orozco.

In Turbo, many migrants also slept in tent cities while waiting for the situation to improve so they could continue their journey. This photo was published in a public Facebook group called "Cubanos de Turbo”.

Overwhelmed by the situation, which NGOs were calling “a humanitarian crisis”, Colombian authorities deported many foreign nationals, sending them back to their own countries or to neighbouring countries.

But many migrants – like Anita, Johnny, and his family – nonetheless managed to cross into Panama. They were thus able to continue their journey north through Latin America.

>> To find out what happens next to Anita and Johnny, stay tuned for part 2 of this series, which will be published on Thursday.