Analysis | The End of ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’: Shaping U.S. Policy with Cuba

Analysis | The End of ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’: Shaping U.S. Policy with Cuba

Taylor Valley

- Eastern European Affairs & Latin American Affairs Specialist
- Graduate Student in Russian, Eastern European, & Central Asian Studies at Harvard University

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On January 20th, 2017, in an effort to normalize relations with Cuba, President Obama announced the end of the "wet foot, dry foot" policy that allowed Cuban refugees who reached U.S. soil a pathway to residency after one year. In a joint statement Cuban President Raul Castro called for Cubans to respect the policy decision and noted that the law was a benchmark in improving bilateral relations. While Obama’s shift in policy was made on the eve of a Trump presidency, limits on entry to the United States dovetail with President Trump’s restrictions on immigration. The new administration has had seemingly little effect on the U.S. and Cuba’s changing dynamic. Despite recent Trump-era travel restrictions, American tourists are still flocking to Cuba, diplomatic relations have resumed, and the embassies in Washington D.C. and Havana continue to operate. Although bilateral relations have seemed to enter a business-as-usual state, Cuban migrants continue to trickle off the island in search of better opportunities.

The last time the United States and Cuba experienced normal diplomatic relations dates back half-a-century to the U.S.-backed Batista regime in Cuba. Then, the island served as a vacation destination for Americans in search of a quick and easy jaunt as well as for U.S. businesses looking to exploit the Cuban sugar industry. For decades, the patron-client system between the United States and the Batista government made for smooth relations at the expense of the Cuban people who disproportionately lived in poverty. This all changed, however, in 1959 when Fidel Castro and ragtag groups of dissidents seized the presidency and toppled the Cuban government. Just three years later, Castro turned Cuba into a Marxist-Leninist state, aligned with the Soviet Union, and seized all American businesses, effectively ending cordial relations with the United States.

The sharp change in policy in Cuba led to capital flight and large-scale migration off the island, with wealthy Cubans leading the charge north to Florida. The Migration Policy Institute reports that within a decade, “the Cuban population in the United States grew almost six-fold, from 79,000 in 1960 to 439,000 in 1970.” A strong distaste for the communist government, led Congress to pass the Cuban Adjustment Act in 1966, which allowed Cubans who reached U.S. territorial waters a pathway to U.S. permanent residency after one year.

The rapprochement between the United States and Cuba in 2014 was the death knell for Cubans’ special immigration status.

While the promises of the Cuban Revolution did manifest through universal education, healthcare, and urban development, everything changed as economic stagnation and Castro’s increasing authoritarianism took hold in the country. Cuba no longer looked to be on the path to utopianism but rather towards deep poverty. Cuban migration to the United States increased with the decline of socio-economic conditions. Castro’s tightly controlled society took a heavy handed approach to migration, punishing those who tried to leave with prison sentences. The situation was exacerbated in the 1990s as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communist Bloc. Without outside support or a market for Cuban sugar, Cuba’s economy crumbled with that of its Soviet benefactor.

This period of economic hardship became officially known as Cuba’s “special period in peacetime.” The ensuing crisis led Cubans to push off the island in boatloads. The number of balseros—Spanish for “rafters”—skyrocketed. The U.S. coast guard reported rescuing over 21,000 escapees in the first two weeks of August 1994 alone. In an attempt to curb migration, the United States began to hold the captured balseros in Guantanamo. Mounting pressure to resolve the situation between the two governments led the Clinton administration to engage in talks with the Castro regime. The negotiations led to modest agreements that would allow for limited legal Cuban migration to the United States, but the issue of the Guantanamo detainees went unresolved and large-scale migration undeterred.

Finally, in 1995, the Clinton administration took a leap and passed what is now known as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy. The policy was a revision to the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. While the 1966 Act allowed all Cubans who made it to U.S. waters a path to residency, “wet-foot, dry-foot” mandated the forceful repatriation of all those who were intercepted at sea, but allowed those who made it to land the same pathway to residency. While the policy was enacted to limit migration, in actuality “wet-foot, dry-foot” rekindled the hope that U.S. residency was no more than a boat ride away. According to the Migration Policy Institute, after the passage of “wet foot, dry foot,” Cuban arrivals surged, “with around 650,000 admitted to the United States between 1995 and 2015.”

The rapprochement between the United States and Cuba in 2014 was the death knell for Cubans’ special immigration status. Just one year after Obama’s 2014 announcement to restore full relations with Cuba, almost 4,000 Cubans attempted passage to the United States. Two years later, the figure skyrocketed to 7,411. After over two decades of attempts, the end of Cuba’s special immigration status has led natives to desperation in order to reach the United States in time. There have been accounts of balseros gravely harming themselves and threatening to harm others so they would be let onto U.S. soil for medical treatment. After 2014, relaxed visa restrictions for Cubans in Ecuador have led many to take a long and dangerous land route to the United States. Starting in Ecuador, these migrants often travel through Venezuela, Central America, and Mexico, before making it to the Arizona or New Mexican border. This treacherous path has led to the detention of many Cubans in state-run hostels across Latin America. The problem became so dire that Ecuador ended its special visa program with Cuba in November 2015 and several  Latin American countries petitioned the United States to reevaluate its “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy.

Obama’s announcement concerning the end of “wet-foot, dry-foot” in January 2017 was met with mixed reviews. The policy’s termination is a large and necessary step towards the full normalization of relations with Cuba. Migration from Cuba on boats has declined freeing up coast guard resources to focus more closely on drug smuggling and trafficking cases. On the other hand, many believe that the repeal is doing more damage to the Cuban people who still live under the heavily controlled Castro regime.

Today, the United States government treats Cubans not as political refugees fleeing a communist state, but rather as economic migrants. After two decades of a guaranteed pathway to residency, Cubans now must meet all requirements like the rest of its Latin American neighbors. While it’s true that Cuba is not a fully open society under Castro, economic privatization is bringing new opportunities to the country and the of the end of the special migration policy has effectively deterred Cubans from risking their lives at sea. One year later, it seems that the termination of Cuba’s special status is one of the few things on which both Obama and Trump can seem to agree.


All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.


All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.


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  1. Pedro Nuno Caetano- Own work, Contradictions, Flickr
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