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With Cubans leaving en masse, much of Cuba's real estate is up for sale

Asylum-seeking migrants from Colombia, Cuba and Venezuela arrive on U.S. soil, after crossing the Colorado River, from Mexico on Feb. 21, in Yuma, Arizona.
Katie McTiernan
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Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Asylum-seeking migrants from Colombia, Cuba and Venezuela arrive on U.S. soil, after crossing the Colorado River, from Mexico on Feb. 21, in Yuma, Arizona.

HAVANA, Cuba — Marco put his home up for sale, a concrete, one-bedroom house outside the Cuban capital, just blocks from the beach. He's hoping to sell almost everything he has to fund the journey out of Cuba.

"Everything is for sale. ... Everything," he says.

Marco doesn't want to use his full name because he's afraid he could face government repercussions for talking about his plans to leave the country.

If he gets out, he'll become the latest in the largest wave of Cubans to leave the island in decades. Many are trying to cross by land from Mexico to the United States. In April alone, U.S. authorities recorded more than 35,000 Cuban nationals at the U.S. southwest border — almost as many as the entire 2021 fiscal year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. They're fleeing mainly because Cuba is struggling through a steep economic downturn. And as leaders from the hemisphere meet at this week's Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, immigration will be a major theme — but communist-controlled Cuba isn't invited.

Three migrants from Cuba stand in front of a U.S. National Guardsman after crossing the Rio Grande river in Eagle Pass, Texas, on May 22. U.S. officials have recorded far higher numbers of Cuban nationals at the border than last year.
Dario Lopez-Mills / AP
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AP
Three migrants from Cuba stand in front of a U.S. National Guardsman after crossing the Rio Grande river in Eagle Pass, Texas, on May 22. U.S. officials have recorded far higher numbers of Cuban nationals at the border than last year.

He lost his job and the economy only got worse

Marco lost his job as an architect during the coronavirus pandemic. He says the economic situation got worse last year when the government nixed the dual currency system and kept only the Cuban peso. Inflation has soared — and so has state control of everything, he says.

He knows starting a new life will be hard, he says, "but at least I'll have tried. Here I can't even do that."

But it hasn't been an easy getaway. Marco was asking $15,000 for his house. Now he says he would even take $8,000.

One real estate broker in Havana describes the housing market as "fishing season," because so much property is up for sale.

He asks to be identified only as Alfredo, so he can speak freely about his work. Alfredo sells everything in U.S. dollars and all transactions take place outside Cuba. He has more than 2,000 listings available.

"If on one block there are 24 houses, 20 of them are for sale. And the other four are considering selling," he says, "no lie!"

Children play outside a dilapidated residential building in Havana, Cuba, on July 13, 2021. The coronavirus pandemic helped devastate Cuba's economy, as tourism dried up.
Natalia Favre / Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
Children play outside a dilapidated residential building in Havana, Cuba, on July 13, 2021. The coronavirus pandemic helped devastate Cuba's economy, as tourism dried up.

Inequality is growing

The Cuban government blames the dismal economy and mass emigration on the U.S. Not just the decades-long U.S. embargo, but also tough economic sanctions imposed by former President Donald Trump that are still in place.

Cuba's all-important tourism sector has tanked, especially during the pandemic, and the country can't find the cash to buy vital goods — everything from basic food to fuel oil. A piece of fruit or meat now cost 1,000% more than last year, according to Cuban economist Omar Everleny.

Inequality in Cuba is growing.

"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," Everleny says.

Horse carts used to give rides to tourists sit idle in the garage of a cooperative where murals of the late leader Fidel Castro and revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara cover the walls in Havana, Cuba, on Feb. 24, 2021.
Ramon Espinosa / AP
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AP
Horse carts used to give rides to tourists sit idle in the garage of a cooperative where murals of the late leader Fidel Castro and revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara cover the walls in Havana, Cuba, on Feb. 24, 2021.

Some go to Panama, then north to the U.S.

And those who can, are leaving. Lines outside foreign embassies are long. One woman gets a call from her husband while waiting in a Havana park by the Panamanian Embassy. She wants to be identified only by her first name María because she, too, is afraid to talk about plans to get off the island.

The couple is trying to get a transit visa to Panama. "Then we'll head to Nicaragua and look for work," she says. Visa requirements there were just lifted for Cubans. From there, they head north to the U.S. border.

And leading the exodus are Cuba's youth. In the hallway of a rundown building in Old Havana a group of teens are twerking and rapping before a video camera.

One 18-year-old says he wants more opportunities. He uses the stage name El Chulito and doesn't want to give his real name or talk politics. He says it's about music and the only economy for that is outside Cuba.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Kahn
Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.