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There's an exodus from Cuba happening

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Cubans are coming to the U.S. in numbers not seen in decades. In April, nearly as many Cuban migrants were apprehended at the U.S. southwest border as in all of last year. This, as Cuba is facing its worst economic downturn in decades. And as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Havana, Cubans are selling everything they have to fund their way off the island.

MARCO: (Speaking Spanish).

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: This 38-year-old man gives me a tour of his one-bedroom home that's up for sale. It's a low-slung concrete house outside Havana, just blocks from the beach. I'm only using his name, Marco. He says he'll face repercussions from the government if he talks about his plans to leave the island.

MARCO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He'll throw in the mattress, the refrigerator and washing machine, too.

MARCO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Everything is for sale - everything. Marco lost his job during the pandemic. He's an architect. But he says the economic situation got even worse last year when the government made the Cuban peso its sole legal currency. "Inflation has soared - so has the black market and government control of everything," he says. He knows life will be hard starting over.

MARCO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "But at least I'll have tried. Here, I can't even do that," he says. He was asking 15,000 for the house. He'll now take eight - $8,000.

ALFREDO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "It's fishing season now," says this real estate broker in Havana. He asked only to be identified as Alfredo so he could speak freely about his work. He sells everything in dollars, and all transactions take place outside Cuba. "All of Cuba is on sale now," he says.

ALFREDO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: So if on one block, there's 24 houses, 20 of them are up for sale. "The other four," he says, "are considering selling."

ALFREDO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "It's no lie," he laughs. He has more than 2,000 listings available. The government blames Cuba's dismal economy and the current exodus on the U.S. - not just the decades-long U.S. embargo, but also tough Trump-era sanctions still in place. Tourism has tanked, especially during the pandemic, and Cuba can't find the cash to buy vital goods - everything from basic food to fuel oil.

OMAR EVERLENY: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "A piece of fruit, like a mango, now costs 1,000% more - meat, also 1,000% more," says Cuban economist Omar Everleny.

EVERLENY: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "So now there is a marked distinction in society between those living on a state salary, just raised to about $50 a month, and those who get help from relatives abroad," he says. Inequality in communist Cuba is growing, and those who can are leaving. Lines outside foreign embassies are long.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

MARIA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: This woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Maria, gets a call from her husband while waiting in a Havana park by the Panamanian Embassy. She's afraid to talk about plans to get off the island. The couple is trying to get a transit visa to Panama.

MARIA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Then we'll head to Nicaragua and look for work," she says. Visa requirements there were just lifted for Cubans who head straight north to the U.S. border. Leading the exodus are Cuba's youth.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Spanish).

KAHN: In the hallway of a run-down building in Old Havana, a group of teens are twerking and rapping before a video camera. This 18-year-old, who uses the stage name El Chulito, says he wants more opportunities.

EL CHULITO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He doesn't want to give his name or talk politics. He says it's about music, and the only economy for that is beyond Cuba. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Havana.

(SOUNDBITE OF GHOSTFACE KILLAH AND BADBADNOTGOOD SONG, "SOUR SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.