Last year, Cubans took to the streets. Now they’re fleeing the island.

Photo by Bryan Cereijo for The Washington Post.
José Carlos Melo joined the protests of July 11, 2021, in Havana. 

MIAMI – José Carlos Melo had never protested before the hot July morning last year when Cubans began marching in a small town outside Havana. Within hours, people were calling for a demonstration in the capital.

With his mother’s blessing, the restaurant manager ventured out to join the thousands chanting “Freedom!” and “It’s over!”

Melo would be tear gassed and shoved to the ground. But on Instagram and in television interviews in the days that followed, he recounted it as the happiest day of his life – a turning point that seemed to mark a before and an after in Cuba’s history.

What came next was more complicated. State security agents lurked outside his home. His mother was pushed out of her job. Police detained Melo, 27, three times, threatening to levy charges that could yield hefty jail time.

By December he decided there was only one path forward: Go to prison or leave.

“So I left,” he explained, in Miami.

A year after the internet-fueled protest rocked Cuba last July 11, many who took to the streets are now defecting, joining one of the largest exoduses from the island since Fidel Castro launched the revolution in 1959.

Some are activists who were detained, threatened and harassed. Others are teachers, farmers and parents of young children who decided they would be better off leaving as the economy continued the tank, the state enacted no significant reforms and Nicaragua lifted its visa requirement, making travel there easier.

The flight is sapping the communist state of much of its youth at a time when the nation’s population is growing at its lowest rate in six decades. It also poses a challenge for the opposition, as some of the most vocal leaders for change flee the island. In Miami, meanwhile, new arrivals are finding it hard to get by – many don’t have permission to work, rents are at record highs and families are trying to accommodate the recent arrivals on couches and air mattresses.

Wilfredo Allen, an attorney in Miami, says he’s getting 20 to 30 emails a day from people thinking about leaving Cuba, waiting at the border or already in the United States. He calls the movement “unstoppable.”

One defining aspect of the newcomers: “Almost every Cuban I’ve dealt with is young. And they are leaving because they have no hope.”

Estimates of how many people marched last summer range from 100,000 to half a million – a narrow slice of the island’s 11.1 million population, but a significant portion in a country where mass protest is rare. The demonstrations stretched from big cities such as Havana and Santiago de Cuba to towns such as Aguacate, where a few people gathered in a square to yell “Patria y Vida!” – Fatherland and Life, a play on the revolutionary slogan “Patria o Muerte”: Fatherland or Death.

The days that followed were both exuberant and terrifying. Melos’ audio broadcasts openly expressing dissent on Twitter Spaces drew hundreds of listeners. Activists formed a group called Archipiélago and started planning another march for November. International news outlets interviewed young, frustrated Cubans and asked whether the island was on the verge of a new revolution.

But the crackdown had already begun. The U.S.-based human rights groups Cubalex and Justicia 11J say more than 1,400 people were arrested in the wake of the protests. A year later, an estimated 700 are still behind bars. The most common charges include public disorder, contempt and sedition. Several dozen people have been tried in military courts. Two of the most prominent detainees – rapper Maykel “El Osorbo” Castillo Pérez and artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara – were sentenced recently to nine and five years in jail.

For many others, however, the consequences have been less public. Melo’s landlord kicked him out of his apartment and his internet was repeatedly cut. Saily González, 31, who ran a bed-and-breakfast in the central city of Santa Clara, said pro-government mobs threw eggs and rocks at her home. State security agents kept Eliexer Márquez Duany, 40 – a rapper known as El Funky, who helped pen the protest anthem “Patria y Vida” – under strict house arrest.

Still, many kept organizing and pushing for greater economic and political liberties.

“After July 11, I couldn’t hold it inside anymore,” González said. She channeled her frustrations on Instagram, where she posted videos calling for detained protesters to be released and separately, staged two protests.

Then came November. A day before Archipiélago’s planned march, security forces blocked access to and from group leader Yunior García’s home. Stuck inside, he extended a hand carrying a white rose out his window – and left for Spain a few days later. Others, including Melo, were prevented from leaving their homes. Some protest leaders, startled, discouraged people from going out, deeming it too risky.

“It’s hard to do the street when your leader left,” Melo said. “And everyone who was on the street was a policeman. You see people with guns – you don’t go to the street.

“People were afraid.”

Garcia’s departure was followed by others.

Rapper Denis Solís – a member of the San Ysidro artists’ movement whose 2020 arrest sparked an earlier revolt – fled to Serbia. El Funky left after getting an invitation to the Latin Grammys. YouTuber Dina Stars – who was detained while giving a live television interview last July – went to Madrid. The teen caught in a viral photo waving a bloodied Cuban flag on July 11 is also in Spain.

But most of the young Cubans fleeing are arriving in Miami – the city of exiles.

More than 140,000 Cubans have been taken into U.S. custody at the Mexico border since Oct. 1, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, typically after long journeys that start with an expensive flight to Managua. The exodus has eclipsed the massive 1980 boatlift, when Fidel Castro opened the port of Mariel to anyone who wanted to leave – and 125,000 people did.

The poorest today continue to flee by sea. U.S. Coast Guard officials have intercepted more than 2,900 Cubans since Oct. 1 – far surpassing the 838 the previous fiscal year.

Yariel Alfonso Puerta, 27, departed on a homemade sailboat crafted out of sheet metal and wooden planks a day before he was due to stand trial for disobedience after protesting last July. His mother said “I’m not sure how it floated.”

The U.S. Coast Guard stopped Puerta in international waters. He was taken aboard a cutter carrying a cellphone that contained a video showing a dozen undercover agents forcing him into a white police car and a letter.

“I am going to the United States on a raft because I am afraid,” he had written. “Please don’t let me die.”

The Miami in which the immigrants are arriving is a city where even middle class families are being steadily squeezed out. The median asking price for a rental in May was over $3,100. Income inequality is on par with that of Panama and Colombia. But family ties and the allure of a city where Spanglish is the lingua franca has nonetheless dawn many.

Arletis Relova, a 29-year-old former schoolteacher, is living with her cousin in an efficiency apartment in Miami. Space is tight, but she believes she’s better off.

“In Cuba, you don’t even have detergent to wash your clothes,” she said one recent morning, as she lined up with other Cubans outside a social services agency.

Now Relova and others have a different problem: They can’t yet work. While many Cubans are released into the United States after short detentions by U.S. Border Patrol, most must wait months to apply and receive employment authorization. In the meantime, many are taking up jobs off the books at carwashes and factories. Most can’t legally drive – or afford a car. Even prominent figures, such as El Funky, are relying on friends to get around.

On an overcast spring evening, he commanded the stage at La Tropical, a beer garden in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood modeled after the one founded in Havana in 1888. He was one of three artists involved with “Patria y Vida” who were still living in Cuba when the song was released last year. Cuban Americans young and old gathered in front of the stage to sing along.

El Funky started his set dressed in a Miami Heat jacket, but by the end of the performance he’d taken it off to reveal a T-shirt with the image of El Osorbo, his detained collaborator.

Márquez says he’s still not used to life in Miami. Shortly after arriving, his father died. He takes some comfort in knowing his father, watching from afar, got to see him accept two Grammys. But he described himself as “struggling.”

He has not made any money from “Patria y Vida.” To do that, he says, he would need to join a U.S. artist licensing organization – which requires a Social Security number, which he does not yet have. These days he is living in a tiny, spartan apartment. When he goes out, people recognize him and cheer him on.

“I feel good because everything I did, I did with heart,” he said. But “Inside, I feel sad.”

Ted Henken, a Cuba scholar at Baruch College who wrote a book on the island’s digital awakening, notes that technology allows angry citizens to spark a protest in a matter of days that in the past would have taken months to organize. But that doesn’t mean they have the tools and strategies to change the status quo.

“In some ways it’s a bitter lesson,” Henken said. “Because the protests in July happened with almost no central organizing entity, personality or set of demands.”

The main movements – San Ysidro, Archipiélago – still have members on the island, but are much diminished. The question of how much change in Cuba can be effected from Miami has been a debate since the first exiles landed here more than 60 years ago. Those interviewed for this story said they’d stay in the struggle – but right now, González said, the strategy is to create a new strategy.

The entrepreneur fled in June after officers told her she should leave or risk being put in jail. She left almost all of her belongings behind – taking just a suitcase with a few changes of clothes. Her brother needed her laptop.

Now González and her husband are living in a small apartment. He works at a curtain-making factory.

“For sure [the opposition] has been weakened because most activists have had to leave the country,” she said. But as long as conditions in Cuba remain unchanged, she said, “I think there will be many more activists.”

For now, the new arrivals are spending much of their time focused on surviving in the United States: Getting jobs. Learning English. Figuring out the bus map.

“I think the government has won the battle, if not the war,” Henken said. “But at what price? They’re sending a whole new generation of young people with talent, ambition, creativity and patriotism abroad to pursue their future.”

Melo arrived in March. In a post on Instagram, he shared a photo of the immigration terminal at Miami International Airport. He described leaving Cuba as “the most selfish and at the same time the least selfish decision” he had ever made.

He was willing to forfeit his job or even go to prison for protesting. But seeing loved ones suffer for his actions was another matter.

“When it’s not you who loses your job, who goes hungry, who lives in fear every day over what might happen, that changes things.”

Melo said Miami is “nice.” And when he’s not thinking about Cuba, he can feel moments of peace. But much of the time, his head is still on the island, thinking about the consequences of his actions, and what he might have done differently.

“Putting Cuba in a box – that has crossed my mind,” he said. “I’m going to be honest. Because it’s a lot. I had my life figured out. And now I’m alone here.”

The only thing that really gives him peace, he said, is thinking about his mother, the woman who gave him permission to go to the protest – and who now, for the first time in a long time, can rest easy, knowing he’s not about to be jailed.

On a recent day, he placed a video call to his mom as he toured Miami so she could accompany him in discovering the city. He showed her the towering glass condominiums downtown, the colorful murals of Wynwood and finally La Ermita, the waterside church that has become a shrine for Cuban exiles.

He pointed the camera at the water and silently gave thanks to the spirits that brought him to Miami.