TAMPA, Fla. — Yan Martinez says that the most challenging part of his journey from Cuba to Tampa earlier this year were the four days he was detained in a Mexican jail.

“I have to focus,” he remembers telling himself. “I have to get to the States. I cannot come back to Cuba because I’m going to be in trouble.”

Martinez made it across the U.S. southern border back in April, where he claimed asylum after being detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in Yuma, Ariz. He’s now residing with a friend living in northwest Hillsborough awaiting a work permit. Tens of thousands of his fellow countrymen and women have been making similar treks at record levels over the past year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

What You Need To Know

  • More than 177,000 Cuban migrants have come through Central America to reach the U.S. border since last October

  • The Nicaraguan government’s decision to exempt Cubans from all visa requirements has allowed for greater flow of Cubans to Central America

  • The communist-led Cuban government continues to grapple with shortages of food and medicine and soaring inflation

The influx of Cubans leaving their country comes a little more than a year after one of the biggest protests in recent times was held against the communist government. More than 5,000 people were arrested for demonstrating, and more than 380 people were ultimately sanctioned, the Cuban Attorney General’s office reported.

"This particular generation in many ways is angrier than any other immigration generation," says Elio Muller, a Cuban native who moved to Tampa as a 5-year-old in 1961. “They tried to make a life within the lies that were promised by the regime. They feel more jaded, more betrayed by this regime than any others."

Martinez, 40, worked as a butler at a hotel in Varadero Beach when he decided to leave Cuba and come to the United States.

The Nicaraguan government’s announcement last fall that it would lift visa requirements for Cubans to promote commercial exchange, tourism and humanitarian family relations has resulted in a flood of Cubans flying to Nicaragua to ultimately get to the Mexican border with the U.S. Martinez says he paid $1,800 for a plane ticket to go from Havana to Managua.

Upon arriving in Managua, he connected with a "coyote" who he says cost him about $3,000. He then traveled through Guatemala and Honduras before ending up in Tapachula, a city located in southern Mexico. He then boarded a bus that traveled up to north to the border before it was apprehended by the Mexican police. He ended up being detained in a jail for four days.

That was “really, really hard,” Martinez recounts. He couldn’t connect with any friends or family members during this time.

He ultimately joined up with two younger Colombian men to jointly cross a part of the southern border, where they were promptly arrested by U.S. Border Patrol agents in Arizona. He then ended up spending several days in U.S. detention when he claimed asylum. He was then given an identification number and applied for a work permit before being released in Phoenix.

He’s now residing with a friend in Town ‘N’ Country.

When asked how he long had envisioned leaving Cuba, Martinez says he had reached a breaking point in the past couple of years.

“We have been poor and in misery for so long that you get used to it,” he says. “But now I’m 40, and I think I don’t want this same life without freedom to my baby girl.”

Martinez says being away from Vera, his 7-year-old daughter, is the toughest part about leaving his homeland. He speaks to her, as well as to his mother, nearly daily, and longer on weekends.

“It’s hard,” he confesses. “I cry a little bit every night. But it is what it is, and it’s a decision that I made and now I have to face it.”

More than 177,000 Cubans have migrated to the U.S. from October 2021 to the end of July 2022, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. That’s a dramatic increase from the year before, when there were 39,303 encounters. The year before that there were 14,015.

Muller, who worked in the U.S. Commerce Department during Bill Clinton’s administration three decades ago, says that those numbers will only increase in the next year — especially among Cubans under 40.

“We’re seeing a population that is realizing the failure of the regime to provide them a decent living and a good opportunity for a future,” he says.

Toward the end of the Obama administration, the U.S. dropped the controversial special parole policy for Cuban refugees known as “wet foot, dry foot.” That policy allowed Cubans who reached land to remain, while returning those caught at sea. However, currently, “wet foot, dry foot,” is the de facto policy, with those Cubans like Martinez who are caught crossing the border into the U.S. illegally allowed to apply for asylum. The Miami Herald recently reported that the U.S. Coast Guard has stopped approximately 5,000 Cubans at sea and returned them to their home nation.