Cuban Rafters Dressed In Police Uniforms Reach The Coasts Of Florida / 14ymedio, Mario Penton

14ymedio biggerA video posted Monday on the social network Facebook shows the arrival of 26 Cubans to the Florida Keys, aboard a rustic raft. The recording, published by the user Jose Carrera, reflects the moment when the raft touches land with the illegal immigrants on board, among them two men dressed in the uniforms of Cuba’s National Revolutionary Police (PNR).

Hector Joel Carrera, one of the rafters who appears in the video, commented to this newspaper by phone that the group left from Guanabo, on the coast north of Havana, at midnight last Saturday. There were 25 men and one woman on the boat, which was at sea for more than 30 hours, he said. During the crossing they tried to avoid the Cuban and United States Coast Guards, and so they used the engines only at night. continue reading

“The problem is that in Cuba building a boat is a crime, if you are caught taking it the sea you lose everything. That happened to us twice on land,” Carrera explained to 14ymedio, The rafter said that this was the group’s fourth attempt to get to the coast of the United States. On a previous occasion, the raft was intercepted by the US Coast Guard after traveling 75 miles from the island.

With regards to the two supposed police officers in a group of rafters, Carrera explained that the uniformed officers collaborated along with the rest of the migrants on the construction of the craft. One of the policemen was nicknamed “The Captain,” for his rank within the PNR, the rafter explained, and he added that everyone knows very well “the system in Cuba and what is happening, even the police themselves.”

This newspaper has not been able to contact any of the men in uniform.

Carrera says his main motivation to jump into the sea and reach US territory was “economic.” “In Cuba I was a rastero (truck driver), I didn’t live badly, however it wasn’t enough to support my family, to buy shoes for my children,” he adds. Remaining on the island are his four children and his wife.

“Over there, even though I work I can’t buy necessities for the family, because the work is not valued. Here, on the other hand, things are thrown away: clothes, shoes, backpacks,” he said with enthusiasm.

According to the rafter, who is currently living in Tampa with relatives who have taken him in, his main goal is “to learn English to be able to work hard,” and financially help the relatives he left behind.

The fear that the Cuban Adjustment Act will be repealed with the process of the reestablishment of relations between the United States and Cuba, has ignited the flow of migrants from the island. According to the Coast Guard, so far this fiscal year, which began 1 October 2015, 2,562 Cubans have been intercepted in the Florida Straits, including 269 in February.

Easter in Cuba: Death and Resurrection of the Individual / 14ymedio, Mario Penton

Mick Jagger in concert in Havana on March 25. (EFE/Ernesto Mastrascusa)
Mick Jagger in concert in Havana on March 25. (EFE/Ernesto Mastrascusa)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Miami, 28 March 2016 – This Sunday of the Resurrection hundreds of individuals attended Mass who, the previous Friday, had sung along with their Satanic Majesties in Havana’s Sports City. From Jesus to the Rolling Stones, Cubans want to breathe beyond the narrow limits of the political system and they do it through music, faith, technology or emigration.

Easter Sunday, the last feast of Holy Week, was the time for Christians on the island to remember the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many came to the temples full of hope after a week charged with symbolism like none other they had ever remembered throughout their lives. continue reading

Jusr seven days ago, while Christians celebrated the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, US President Barack Obama landed in Havana. For two days he would shock the population with simple gestures and a discourse that invited them to look toward the future and to do so with hope.

On Good Friday Mick Jagger was the star, displaying his “elvis-presley attitudes*” and, with a megaconcert in the Cuban capital, burying the tiny remnants of the “New Man” still within Cubans.

It is impossible not to read “the signs of the times” that have been experienced in the last seven days. Easter has a strong liberating content. The Jews, for example, commemorate it as the end of their servitude in Egypt and their constitution as a people. For Christians, on the other hand, it represents the defeat of death in the messianic resurrection. It always continues a current message: the only way to live is to bury the archaic, be it in the Red Sea or in a tomb that represents the structure of sin that tramples the innocent.

Ironically, both the “satanic” and the Christians suffered the same fate when they tried to skew the plurality of the nation in service to an ideology. The infamous Military Units in Aid of Production (UMAP) made brothers of the priest, the dissident, the rocker and the homosexual.

In 2012, Cuba had its first Good Friday holiday since 1959. This required the visit and intercession of Pope Benedict XVI. Although there is still a long way to go to achieve true religious freedom, the persecutions and Pioneer assemblies where Christians are humiliated solely for professing a religion are in the past.

In 2016, to the dismay of those who tried to make the nation uniform, the prototype of the Anti-New-Man, with his tight pants and his big ribald mouth held the biggest concert in the history of Cuba and called to mind the moments when listening to his music was dangerous. The changes have begun, we can see that there is no going back, despite the reluctance of the forces that are trying to perpetuate the past.

Cuba experienced a peculiar Easter, a time of steps, sometimes uncertain and ajiaco-style, but certainly full of hope, and ultimately, as always, life will end up triumphing.

*Translator’s note: In a 1963 speech, Fidel Castro attacked “elvispresley” attitudes.

Cubans in Panama Ask Obama’s Help in the Immigration Crisis / 14ymedio, Mario Penton

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 22 March 2016 — “If it were not for the many who have died trying, it would be funny: Obama is in Cuba and we Cubans are leaving it.” In his sweaty mestizo face you can see small wrinkles, no doubt accentuated by the days spent in the journey along the dangerous route from Ecuador to Colombia. “I had to, I was desperate, no papers, no money, I had no other option to not go back to Cuba or die,” says the migrant.

For several weeks thousands of Cubans have been flocking to the Panamanian border, both in the east (Puerto Obaldia) and west (Paso Canoas), hoping Costa Rica and Nicaragua will allow the migratory flow to pass and offer them humanitarian safe conduct passes. Costa Rica closed its borders to Cuban migrants after negotiating with Mexico the departure of thousands who were stranded late last year when Nicaragua closed its borders. Something similar is happening now in Panama, only the solution is far off.

Orislandy Diaz Marrero, a young Cuban of 26 who recently managed to cross the jungle through the Darien Gap, in the central area of the country, tells 14ymedio his opinion about the visit of the president of the United States to the island. “I don’t know what Obama’s intentions are, but I am sure that nothing good is going to come of it. Those people (the Cuban government) have nothing good in mind.” He explains that his decision to abandon the country is the same as “everyone else’s.” Orislandy pauses for a long moment, sighs and adds, “It’s because they don’t let us breathe there.”

For Adrian Cedeño, a communications specialist who decided to emigrate to Ecuador, Obama’s visit “marks a before and after,” but he questions, beyond diplomacy and protocol, what the real benefits are to ordinary Cubans. “The Cuban people want to believe that this is a hope,” said Cedeno while pointing out that the issue of emigration on the island goes beyond a purely political matter. “It’s about the dignity they have taken from us. They have left a people, a culture, a country with nothing,” he says and asks that the rulers think “the about common good and not political interests of yesteryear.”

Yordanis Garcia is one of the representatives of the Cuban National Alliance of Ecuador, a civil society group that has recently been formed to defend the rights of migrants from the island in that country. “Actually, I would like to believe that the arrival of Obama in Cuba would be a big change for my Cuba” he says. “His arrival has shocked Cubans on the island as well as those who are not there.” Garcia adds that he feels “proud” that an American president is in Havana because of the powerful message of freedom that gesture sends.

Dozens of Cubans have held vigils, rallies and protests, both in Panama and Ecuador in recent days, asking to be allowed to continue their trip to the United States. On Monday, a group of them sent a letter to President Obama and his wife Michelle asking them to intervene in the current immigration crisis.

A video accompanying the letter was filmed on 19 March, in the middle of a vigil called “Towards Freedom.” The video, just two minutes long, contains the main reasons why they decided to leave Cuba. “We want to make them (the authorities) understand that we are fleeing from Castro’s dictatorship in which for half a century we have never voted, where there are no free elections (…) where we can not speak out as we do here. The only thing we saw for ourselves was fleeing from our country leaving many of our loved ones behind.” The message ends quoting José Martí between shouts of freedom: “When the people flee, the leaders have no purpose.”

In the past fiscal year (between October 2014 and September 2015) more than 43,000 Cubans reached US territory, taking advantage of the so-called Wet foot/Dry Foot law, that allows them to stay legally until, at the end of a year and a day since their arrival, they can submit an application to reside in the United States. Since last October, 2,420 Cubans have been intercepted at sea by the Coast Guard and more than 10,000 have entered through the southern border.

“The Only Thing I Want Is For Them To Let Me Be With My Son” / 14ymedo, Mario Penton

Fernando Collazo and Tania Chacon. (Facebook)
Fernando Collazo and Tania Chacon. (Facebook)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 18 March 2016 — When Fernando Collazo left Cuba on 23 October 2014 heading to Ecuador, he carried painfully in his heart nostalgia for his family and the homeland he left behind and the illusion of a person who hopes to devote his best energies to succeeding in a foreign country and, at the expense of every sacrifice, to helping his family.

He was driven by his commitment to his brother, who did not hesitate for a moment to sell his possession to get the money needed for a plane ticket to Quito in which the family deposited its hopes. Finally, they would emerge from misery and illegality. Fernando would not have to keep selling orange concentrate in the capital, stolen in God only knows what ways from the few remaining citrus producers in Jaguey Grande. continue reading

Fernando is a simple man, hardened by physical labor, a man of few words, but with an exquisite sensitivity. He came to the land of Pichincha like many Cubans, with the hope of asking the coyotes, once he got the money together, to help him continue his journey to the United States. “I came to this country with $200 in my pocket. That’s all I had.”

On his third day in the country, on a tourist visa, he began working as a bricklayer in a school in Tulcán. It was there that he met Tania Chacon, an Ecuadorean woman, the single mother of an 11-year-old. They decided to live together and Collazo took over maintenance of the house, where his mother-in-law also lived.

Months passed and Tania was pregnant. Five months into the pregnancy, he needed to regularize his immigration status to be able to continue to work when his son was born, so he went to the Cuban consulate to ask for instructions about how to proceed. There he saw an official who explained that after the birth of the baby he could benefit from Ecuadorian nationality without any more bureaucratic complications. Encouraged by this hope, he took the minibus back to his city when the immigration police launched a raid and he was arrested.

“The first thing they did was take my belt, my cellphone and the thirty dollars I had,” he remembers. He never saw the money again. He was detained and held in a cell until he was taken to the Hotel Carrion, a center where they hold people who are not formally under arrest but nor are they free to leave, while awaiting processing for deportation to their places of origin.

Fernando’s trial was held and the judge ruled for his deportation. Tania Chacon has asked repeatedly that he be allowed to stay, at least until the birth of their son. The repeated appeals have exhausted the family resources to the extent that they have been selling their appliances. Not even a child support judgment they tried as a way to stop the process was successful.

Nor have the numerous letters sent by Cubans to president Rafael Correa asking about the case. The recommendations from his employers are worthless as are the interventions from humanitarian organizations. “The only thing I want is for them to let me be with my son. I don’t care if they deport me afterwards, at least let me see him,” asks Fernando.

This Friday is the last chance to secure the release of Fernando Collazo. His lawyer filed a habeas corpus plea to try to stop the deportation process. Organizations of Cuban civil society in the Andean country have expressed their support through a statement and are demanding his release.

Obama Advisor Ben Rhodes Meets With Cuban Activists In Miami, During A “Historic” Meeting / 14ymedio, Marion Penton

 President Barack Obama’s key advisor on Cuba policy, Ben Rhodes, during his meeting with representatives of civil society on the island. (14ymedio)
President Barack Obama’s key advisor on Cuba policy, Ben Rhodes, during his meeting with representatives of civil society on the island. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 11 March 2016 – President Obama’s top advisor on US policy toward Cuba, Ben Rhodes, met this Friday with representatives from the island’s Civil Society and exile organizations. The meeting took place in Miami, concluding with a chat with Cuban-Americans that the official held at Miami Dade College.

The purpose of the meeting, which lasted several hours behind closed doors, was for Rhodes to listen to the aspirations and opinions of those groups in advance of President Obama’s visit to the island. Several of those attending agreed that the meeting was an “historic moment.” continue reading

Remberto Perez, vice president of the Cuban National Foundation (CANF) in New Jersey, explained that everyone expressed their points of view regarding the national reality before the US president’s visit. “It is a unique and extraordinary opportunity. The fact that we are doing this is a sign that the work of the internal and exiled dissidence has borne fruit,” he said.

Opposition member Martha Beatriz Roque, a member of the Black Spring’s Group of 75, confirmed that she will not meet with the US president, as speculated in some media. “It is not necessary that Obama receive me because I have been able to express my concerns to Ben Rhodes,” and she added, “I am super satisfied with this meeting,” said the dissident, who will not be on the island during the president’s visit because she is going to be traveling to Spain.

Leticia Ramos, a representative of the Ladies in White from Matanzas province, announced that Obama sent a letter to the organization and expressed his desire to meet with them in Havana. “So far we have high expectations and the president has informed us that he wants to meet with us,” said Ramos. Although she said they are “facing an uncertainty” because “the regime is going to prevent it at all costs” and “the arbitrary arrests will be massive to avoid this meeting.”

The Ladies in White have let Rhodes know that the visit should be directed “truly by the Cuban people” and he should try to ensure that “his speech reaches ordinary Cubans.” Initially, the position of the Ladies in White had been very critical of Obama’s visit to the island. With regards to the letter sent by the president, no details are available because “it was sent sealed” to Berta Soler, the representative of the organization.

The youngest activist at the meeting, Carlos Amel Oliva Torres, national coordinator of the Youth Front of the Patriotic Union of Cuban (UNPACU), told this newspaper that “the meeting surprised all of us in the most positive way,” because “we thought we would be coming to explain to Obama’s advisor the reality of the Cuban people, but to our surprise he knows it very well.”

Oliva Torres agrees with the rest of those present that it was an “historic” meeting and, in his opinion, “there was very good communication, great harmony between our approaches and his responses.”

“We are all demanding the same thing: we want the American president to go to Cuba and direct his discourse to the people of Cuba, not to the government,” said the UNPACU member.

The meeting was moderated by Jorge Mas Santos, president of the CANF, who praised the attitude of “these brave men and women (…) who keep alive the flame of hope on the island.” The Cuban-American extended his appreciation to the White House and stressed that meetings like this show that “beyond the Straits of Florida that separate us, we are one people.”

Mas Santos said that “President Obama’s advisor was able to listen to you directly, your dreams, your aspirations, the totalitarian nature of a regime that has oppressed our island for more than five decades, and through your suggested this liberating message can reach the mouth of President Obama on his visit to Cuba.”

“I’m Afraid That Ecuador Will Deport Me To Cuba” / 14ymedio, Mario Penton

Sigfredo Ochoa values the freedom he has found in Ecuador but feels rejected in the Andean country. (Courtesy of the interviewee)
Sigfredo Ochoa values the freedom he has found in Ecuador but feels rejected in the Andean country. (Courtesy of the interviewee)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 26 February 2016 — Sigfredo Ochoa is 40 years old. Six months ago he was one more “Palestinian” in Havana, a Cuban from Holguin living “illegally” in the capital of his own country, according to the authorities – a status that earned him that strange moniker among native Havanans. He worked as an investigator, regulator and auditor in the Provincial Trade Company, a state entity that, among other things, manages the dwindling quotas distributed through the ration book.

“The idea of coming to Ecuador arose mainly because of the state of siege I experienced because of my homosexuality. At work it was impossible not to be discriminated against, and on top of that there is the economic situation we Cubans experience. My salary wasn’t enough to live on; if I ate I couldn’t clothe myself, if I clothed myself I couldn’t eat; a question as existential as Shakespeare’s ‘to be or not to be,’ but in a tropical version. continue reading

Ochoa noted that it wasn’t easy to get the money to leave the island. His parents had to sell the old family house and buy a small apartment in order to cover the cost of the trip. The passport cost him five months salary, and adding the cost of the ticket and the first months’ living expenses, it wiped out the few dollars he had.

“My mother has Alzheimer’s disease and has already been operated on for colon cancer. My father is a retired old man. Together their pensions don’t total 30 CUC a month (under $30), tell me, who can live in Cuba on that money? I had no option, I had to sacrifice myself for them… and for me.”

Sigfredo’s expectation was, like many Cubans who set off for Ecuador, that he would be able to enter the labor market in the Andean country, where the minimum salary is 366 dollars a month, more than ten times that in Cuba, although the cost of living is higher in Ecuador.

“I thought getting a job would let me survive and be able to help my parents, but everything here has wiped me out. These people do not want to give us work and they don’t want us in their country. We go out looking for work and they simply tell us they don’t want Cubans. In a month we have no money left to pay the rent and we have to sleep in the street. I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he laments.

On entering Ecuador with a tourist visa, Cubans have 90 days to try to legalize their status in the country. For several years that have done it through a professional visa, which in the interest of the nation’s human resources, allows professionals from the island to qualify for the title previously legalized by the Cuban Foreign Ministry and certified at the Ecuadorian embassy in Havana, and so to stay in Ecuador and subsequently find work in areas such as healthcare and education.

Cuban doctors and professionals took advantage of the opportunity to come en masse, which forced the Cuban government to come to an agreement with Ecuador to suspend this right to university graduates coming from the island. Over time, other alternatives to legalization were also closed, such as the temporary visa, valid for six months, know as the 12-IX and the commercial visa.

“The only option now to legalize myself is to marry an Ecuadorian and have children. It’s the only possibility left to us Cubans. Ecuadorians are asking between 3,000 and 4,000 dollars for a marriage of convenience that enables us the privileges of a spouse,” says Sigfredo.

Sigfredo is grateful to Ecuador as the country where he discovered freedom. “What struck me most when I get here is that you can speak out and say what you really believe without anyone controlling it.” However, just the fact of being Cuba, and in addition being undocumented, has led to a lot of discrimination.

“One of the many times I’ve sought work a restaurant they wouldn’t even let me speak. ‘There is no work for Cubans here. You and dogs are the same thing,’ they said. They kicked me out with these words, ‘Get out of here, you people come to this country to steal our jobs.’ That hurt me so much because I didn’t want to take anyone’s job, I simply had the idea of helping my family and getting out of the nightmare that is life in Cuba,” he lamented.

Employers in Ecuador often take advantage of these undocumented migrants as cheap or slave labor. “Once I worked in a bar for a week. I did the cleaning and served as a barman for 20 dollars a day. I never say a single cent. When I asked for my pay the owner said he would call the police. We are completely defenseless.”

Many Cubans are living in the center of Quito. “There are many who are undocumented,” comments Ochoa. “Recently there was a raid and they took several. I live with fear, I try to go out only after sunset or very early in the morning, in the hours when the police usually aren’t in the streets because I’m afraid they will deport me to Cuba.”

For Sigfredo, in Ecuador, as in Cuba, there is nothing to hope for. He does not believe he can obtain residency and, even though he has tried to join other groups departing for the United States, the extremely high cost – around 6,000 dollars – and the dangers of the jungle have stopped him. Now he sees a hope.

A group of Cubans who share his fate have decided to give a voice to those migrants who are surviving in the streets of Quito. He was one of those who went to the demonstration at English Park. “It is the only hope we have left, if they don’t want us here, at least we can go where we can grow as people and work honorably. That’s all we are asking for.”

Cubans In Ecuador Come Together To Demand Their Rights / 14ymedio, Mario Penton

A group of Cubans living in Ecuador met in the English Park to demand their rights. (Facebook)
A group of Cubans living in Ecuador met in the English Park to demand their rights. (Facebook)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Penton, Miami, 24 February 2016 — Fifty Cubans met in English Park, in the north of Quito, to request treatment similar to their compatriots stranded in Central America. The anonymous call to the meeting, which circulated among groups of Cubans on Facebook, asked all Cuban immigrants living in Ecuador to agree to “ask and demand” that they be sent to the United States, because, they say, they are fed up with “the abuses and contempt” in the Andean country.

According to the event organizers, their goal for the “First Meeting of Cubans in Ecuador” is to be heard about their “rights as human beings.” In addition, they affirm they do not want “any form of conflict within in the country,” and only want “to have a dignified life and to be able to choose the ideal place to do so.” continue reading

Pedro Sanchez, one of the participants, told 14ymedio via the Messenger app that the protesters set three objectives. First, push for an agreement between the Governments of Ecuador and Mexico to allow a safe transfer to the United States of those Cubans who are undocumented in the country; second to form a movement with a legal basis; and third, to advocate for the nine Cubans who are imprisoned in the Hotel Carrion and are also part of their struggle. The Hotel Carrion is an immigration jail where undocumented Cubans are sent while awaiting eventual deportation to the island.

“The main problem of the Cuban community is discrimination,” says Osvaldo Hernandez Cabrera. “Here they don’t want to legalize us or give us work.. We only ask that they give us a direct way to reach the United States via Mexico as they have given our brothers. We are not illegal, we are Cubans stranded in Ecuador,” he claimed.

To get a work permit, he adds, there are many requirements and most of the time, when they go in search of employment, they are rejected with a resounding “no Cubans are hired here.” “We are trying to send letters and get them to listen to us, otherwise we are ready to throw ourselves on the border with Colombia to get them to pay attention to us,” he said.

Hundreds of messages of support have been sent to these Cubans from different parts of Ecuador. “Some of us are not in Quito, but we are one hundred percent for the cause. From other places we will be supporting everything that is needed,” said Yordey Betancourt, an app user. Another young Cuban lamented the discrimination to which she is subjected. “Today a lady told me on the trolley (bus) ‘this is not your country.’ They mistreat us without reason, because Cubans are good. Give us an out and Ecuador will see that we will never return. We’ve run out of money and they no longer want us. Incomes, sales, taxis, trade… they all increased with us and now they do not want us.”

Vivian Hernandez Valdes supports the requests of the group: “What they are asking for is fair. The living conditions of many compatriots here are very poor and I think it is the right time for all Cubans who are in Ecuador and want to travel to the United States to get the same treatment as those in Panama and Costa Rica.”

The Cuban community in Ecuador grew starting in 2008 when the country lifted the visa requirement for travellers from the island. It is estimated that there are about 40,000 Cubans residing in the country. Ecuador was used as a springboard by Cuban migrants to reach the United States to take advantage of the Cuban Adjustment Act. According to official figures, in mid-2010 37,000 Cuban entered the country, a trend that continued rapidly increasing until Rafael Correa’s government decided to re-impose a visa requirement last December, after the immigration crisis that broke out in Central America.

Montaner: “The regime has succeeded in confusing the Cubans about their own history” / 14ymedio, Mario Penton

Carlos Alberto Montaner. (14ymedio)
Carlos Alberto Montaner. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Penton, Miami, 19 February 2016 — José Martí is not the precursor of the Cuban Revolution, nor can one establish continuity between the mambises [Cuban independence fighters of the 1800s] and the Stalinist regime in place since 1959. “This telling of the story is an ideological swindle,” said Carlos Alberto Montaner in a series of three lectures in Miami from 16 to 18 February at the Casa Bacardi Center for Cuban and Cuban-American studies.

The course was very well received in this city, recognized as “the capital of the historical exile” and one of the places where Cuba’s Republican era legacy, erased at a stroke after the Revolution of 1959, is best preserved. “It is a way of maintaining Cuban roots, which is something that after all these years I have not lost. Even my children will identify themselves as Cubans, not Cuban Americans, but simply Cubans continue reading

,” he told 14ymedio’s Pilar Ramos, a 61-year-old architect of Cuban origin who attended the event.

Montaner shined in the domain of national history, which he presented from a bird’s eye view, sprinkled with picturesque anecdotes. He presented colonial Cuba explaining, from an international perspective, the main events of the time, from the economic boom under the English flag, to the bitter slavery paid for with the rum produced on the island and the lives of one million Africans claimed in the Cuban countryside.

The presentation of Republican era Cuba and “Revolutionary” Cuba were the richest moments, especially for young people from the island, educated under the Marxist historiography dedicated to rewriting history, as in George Orwell’s 1984. “This is a vital issue for me, because I am nothing but Cuban and I also believe it is important to explain and revindicate that Republic has been unfairly vilified,” said Montaner, who showed both the lights and shadows of the Cuban Republic. He described the causes that led to the coup of 1952, a disastrous prelude to the end of democracy in the country.

A special section was, of course, the establishment of communism in Cuba and the figures of Fidel Castro and his brother Raul. Decades of Castroism must be assessed in their appropriate perspective to understand national history, distancing oneself from the opposing positions that remain both in Cuba and in exile. “Using history as a weapon, I believe, is a mistake, history is an account that needs to be told as objectively as possible,” said researcher.

For Montaner, “In the exile there remains a Cuba that is not going to return. The Cuba of the future will be different but hopefully it will recover the virtues of the Cuba of the past.” The journalist has hope that a phenomenon similar to what occurred in the countries of Eastern Europe after the collapse of socialism will also occur on the island. “When the time came for democracy they tried to retrieve their own history that had been destroyed or disguised by the agents of communism.”

He could not fail to reflect on the announcement of Barack Obama’s upcoming trip to Cuba, the first by a US president in 88 years. “The idea of ​​unilaterally decreeing the end of the Cold War in the Caribbean, without engaging the adversary, is so naïve that it stuns me. It goes against the United States’ own institutions and can only be explained by the psychological and intellectual nature of President Obama.”

While for some of the attendees it was a recalling of the years they had lived through, for others it was peek into a story that has been off-limits to Cubans for decades because of partisan interests. The history of Cuba in three lessons demands continuity. A well-known saying tells us that a people ignorant of its own history is doomed to repeat it, or as Cicero said, “not knowing what happened before us, is like being children forever.” It is time for us to grow up.

Tomas Regalado, “Washington Refuses To Recognize That There Is A Migration Crisis” / 14ymedio, Mario Penton

Pedro Tomas Regalado, mayor of Miami, in a file image. (EFE)
Pedro Tomas Regalado, mayor of Miami, in a file image. (EFE)

14ymedio, Mario J. Penton, Miami, 3 February 2016 — Miami Mayor Tomas Pedro Regalado (born Havana, 1947), says that his is not prepared to cope with the surge of Cuban rafters who come daily to the coast of Florida. He came to the United States as a teenager and was a journalist before winning election in 2009. Today he opposes the repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act and also opposed the opening of a Cuban consulate in Miami because of the costs for security that would be borne by the city.

Penton. In Miami, you breathe Cuba everywhere you go. Can you talk about a Cuban city?

Regalado. It may seem politically correct that the mayor of Miami says that this city has been made by ​​Cubans, Colombians, Nicaraguans, but the reality is that it has been made by Cubans, who opened the door so that many other nationalities could work, triumph and achieve the American dream. I was born in Cuba, but I grew up here. When I arrived as a teenager, there were still signs in many rental buildings reading: “No Cubans, no Jews, no dogs.” We had to overcome these challenges so Cubans created Miami. Those who created this Miami were the same as those who contributed to the success of Cuba in the fifties.

Why hasn’t their “Cubanness” been extinguished? Simply because among the first generations many of the wounds have not healed and the exiles pass on this historic legacy to their children and grandchildren. The Cuban family is different from family in the United States. We grew up with grandparents and the family permanently together. My dad, who was a political prisoner, when he got here he picked up my daughter at school while I worked and he told her the stories of being a political prisoner. Today, my daughter, who has never set foot in Cuba, knows Cuban history as well as anyone who came in the ‘60s. In addition, the United States does not require you to break with your roots. continue reading

Penton. Tell me about the new Cuban Miami?

Regalado. It is made up ​​of people who have recently arrived from the island. It doesn’t have political passion so much, as a tremendous appetite to regain all the years that have been lost, hungry and in need.

They go down the path of consumerism, but this also has an impact on Cuba. When they arranged the community trips in 1979 [with Cuba-Americans returning to Cuba for the first time since they left], under the Carter administration, they created a boiling point that led to the events in the Peruvian embassy and the Mariel Boatlift. Cubans went there with photos of their new cars, their modern houses and clothes. Miami is always going to gravitate to Cuba. It’s not about competition, but simply that here, in the United States, if you do the right things, go by the book and work hard, the law of probability says that you are going to succeed. In Cuba, if you go by the book and do the right thing, the law of probability says that you are going to be broke.

Penton. Among the generations that came between the ’60s and the ’80s, is there a bias toward the newcomers?

Regalado. Cubans get along because everyone has a relative they left behind, a friend in the village. When the time comes for solidarity, we think more with our hearts than with our wallets. Someone looks for an apartment for a compatriot, someone else gives him a mattress… Are their rotten apples among those who come? Of course. This is something we have everywhere in the world.

Penton. Do you think that those who come now should continue to get the rights to the legal benefits the United States gives them?

Regalado. The proposal to amend the benefits that Cubans receive has nothing to do with changing the Cuban Adjustment Act in the United States Code. To change that they must get a two-thirds vote in both Houses of Congress. There is no political will to do that and I do not support doing that. The benefits Cubans get are the same ones Syrian refugees are getting. The Department of Health and Social Welfare pays agencies and the State of Florida channels the funds to help these people so they can get ahead in their first months here.

What has been abused? Effectively, the abuses are technical: a married couple divorces before hitting land to get double benefits and other inventions. Fighting against these abuses can favor the permanence of the Cuban Adjustment Act.

The Cuban Adjustment Act is a privilege that we must not give up or allow to be eliminated, because they have not eliminated the causes for which it emerged. The root of this law is the dictatorship in Cuba. The policy of “wet foor/dry foot” is not a law, it is a directive that any president can remove.

Penton. Is Miami ready for this wave of immigrants?

Regalado. No, we do not know how many are coming, or when, or what their circumstances are. Volunteer agencies receive money from the United States budget, from the refugee division. The extraordinary rise in the number of rafters is eating into the budgets of these agencies and overwhelming them. This month they ran out of funds on January 7th.

On the other hand, three groups of 13 people came from Ecuador and they were living on the streets. I picked them up and took them to Camilo’s House [a refuge]. Our facilities are full, because in the winter many homeless from the north come to Florida, and this year there are more than in 2015.

We have to deal with our own homeless. The law doesn’t allow people to live in the streets. Right now we have 64 families living in hotels and by March we are going to have used up all the money we have to pay for those rooms.

Penton. Have you made ​​any official request to the federal government and the Congress?

Regalado. Yes, to both, but there is no definite answer yet. The federal government does not want to publicly acknowledge that there is a migration crisis or a humanitarian crisis, because for the White House, in Cuba everything is fine. If they are planning a trip for President Barack Obama to the island, how is Obama going to go if the headlines are saying there is a Cuban migrant crisis? The reality is that since relations have been formally reestablished we have seen a rise in the number of rafters and more people crossing the border, as well as those who come legally and Cubans with Spanish citizenship. Some of them became Spanish citizens under the Law of Historic Memory [which allows the grandchildren of Spaniards to claim citizenship], and they get on a plane in Havana with a Spanish passport and disembark in Miami with a Cuban passport.

The federal government should increase the grants to the volunteer agencies, issue executive orders to speed up the granting of Social Security, immigration documents and work permits. These same agencies are responsible for offering work for those refugees and homes and other parts of the United States. The other solution is that local governments give us a cushion of money to be able to handle more cases of need, if necessary. The families that we are already taking care of cost us $900,000 a year.

Penton. Do you propose, then, to increase the budget?

Regalado. Unfortunately, the city of Miami is not a republic and therefore we cannot have our own distinct immigration policy, only Washington’s.

The solution is immigration reform that would legalize the 12 million in the United States who are in limbo, and increase the number of visas for Cubans and interview them at the embassy on the island to determine who will be accepted and who will not. Those coming through Costa Rica are, for the most part, professionals, but here there is no background check, no one asks who you are.

They enter because they enter. In Laredo they say “I am Cuban” and they enter. Because we don’t have any authority to dictate immigration patterns, we say, “Are more Cubans coming?” Then we have to ask for more money.

Penton. Will this new wave of immigrants change the traditional Republican vote in South Florida?

Regalado. I don’t know. The greatest sin is that in the United States voting is not compulsory. Many young people do not vote. But if there is something we can say it is that this still isn’t having a political impact that is moving the positions of members of Congress or presidential candidates or local officials.

Penton. Why don’t you want to see a Cuban consulate in Miami?

Regalado. The only argument of those who support a consulate is that it is going to solve the problems Cubans here because they will be able to do their business without traveling and therefore at a cheaper cost.

But there is a cost. Given that in America anyone can protest and stand at the entrance and say what they think without the police being able to arrest them, the police will have to guard the consulate at all times to protect the staff, those entering the consulate and those protesting. We have experienced having the Venezuelan consulate which was opened six months ago, with daily protests and a cost to the city of $600,000 in extra pay to the police to guard it.

Penton. What are the prospects for the relationship between Cuba and Miami over the next five years?

Regalado. There can only be a radical change if Fidel, Raul Castro, Ramiro Valdes and all those commanders die tomorrow. Then, with a new generation that assumes power and is more flexible, we can have a dialogue. There will be no changes in the relationship simply because Cuba has not changed. Maybe the change is that the Ladies in White will face beatings not every Sunday but every other Sunday.

Or that they will fine the produce vendors with their carts not 10,000 pesos but 500 pesos. I have not seen any change: the opposition leaders do not have access to the media, and those investing in Cuba cannot hire their own employees.

I don’t see them allowing freedom of movement, or holding a public meeting where a Cuban from Miami can talk about freedom and democracy. Nor do I agree with those who say a new generation of entrepreneurs is emerging in Cuba. Those who say that are newcomers to the Cuba issue. With a little historic memory we can go back to the Farmers’ Free Markets (MLC), where production in Cuban multiplied and thousands of peasants got rich, but it also began to corrupt the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and the People’s Power and the regime eliminated it.

Once you have full freedom, free press, free elections in Cuba, I’m sure Miami is going to flood the island. Not that it is not doing so now, but then it will really be something.

From Little Pioneers To Pioneers Of Entrepreneurship / 14ymedio, Mario Penton Martinez

Panel of Cuban entrepreneurs in Miami, during the 'Emerging Tech In Cuba: Meet Its Pioneers' event. (14ymedio)
Panel of Cuban entrepreneurs in Miami, during the ‘Emerging Tech In Cuba: Meet Its Pioneers’ event. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Penton Martinez, Miami, 8 December 2016 — “Starting a new business should start with a good financial advice,” says the business card of Marta Deus’s company. After 15 years in Spain, this entrepreneur returned to the island and now advises self-employed workers on accounting. She was in Miami on Monday to attend a technology event where the public was invited to meet the pioneers of entrepreneurship in Cuba, Emerging Tech In Cuba: Meet Its Pioneers.

Cases like Deus’s are becoming more common. Other people are opening the way into the emerging Cuban private sector Cuban, mixing creativity, daring and technology. These pioneers of virtual businesses on the island presented their achievements in the meeting organized by #CubaNow and Techweek in front of an attentive audience, made up mostly of Cuban Americans. continue reading

From the stage were heard stories like that of Hiram Centelles, founder of the popular classifieds site Revolico. The stars of the day were some of the most visible faces of the emerging business community that has converted challenges into opportunities, finding business niches among Cuba’s many daily difficulties. All of them have been trained since childhood, as “Little Pioneers,” in a system that demonized the market, capital and business. But ultimately they have shaken off those prejudices to become entrepreneurs.

Centelles is currently heading up two other projects. The first Yagruma, is a crowdfunding platform for Cuban artists who are waiting for new US regulations to operate without the restrictions imposed by the embargo. The other is Fonoma, which facilitates the payment of Cubans’ telephone bills by family and friendsmabroad and has excellent business prospects, according to its developers.

Others, like Yondainer Gutierrez, are betting on the restaurant industry. Speaking in Miami, he explained the details of the restaurant directory Alamesa, which he created to bring customers to the best paladares (private restaurants) in the country. Started in 2011, there is now an Android app that contains records of more than 600 restaurants in nine provinces, with geolocation and offline maps.

The guest who generated the most excitement, however, was Elio Hector Lopez, also known as El Transportador, who talked about the origins of the “weekly packet,” an illegal compendium of audiovisual and digital content that is distributed on the black market throughout the country, which he has been a part of since the beginning.

With the rule “zero politics, zero violence, zero pornography,” Lopez’s packet has managed to avoid official censorship, although it is not looked on kindly by the cultural institutions which accuse him of encouraging frivolity and bad taste. In recent months the advertising potential of this product has grown, becoming a vehicle for disseminating the work of other entrepreneurs in the country.

The dialogue with the audience addressed the biggest obstacles facing these pioneers of digital enterprise. Difficulties in internet access and the high cost of connections was at the center of complaints. The need for banking reform to enable payments and collections online was also mentioned, as well as the obstacles of the bureaucracy and slowness of some official paperwork requirements.

To the question of how the island has changed since last 17 December – with the restoration of relations between Cuba and the United States – the young entrepreneurs agreed that they see it as “an opportunity” to learn about the business model in the United States and also to train tomorrow’s entrepreneurs in American universities and through academic exchanges.

“Cuba Is Going To Be Emptied Out” / 14ymedio, Mario Penton Martinez

Cuban medical mission in Ecuador. (Américatevé.com)
Cuban medical mission in Ecuador. (Américatevé.com)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton Martinez, 2 Deceber 2015 — The first thing Frank Gonzalez (not his real name) dreams of doing upon his arrival in New York is eating ice cream, even if it is snowing. The route to the United States, however, is still a long one for this medical clinician from Camagüey who is in Ecuador, from where he is going to try to get to Colombia.

The doctor, 49, traveling with his wife and daughter, says he is “looking for freedom,” as other family members and neighbors have already done. “In my neighborhood of Camagüey very few of my friends remain, most of them are here or in the United States. Cuba is going to be emptied out,” he muses. continue reading

His motivations to leave the island, he says, “were the same as for all those who have been leaving Cuba for years.” And he added, “When I had spent two days in this country I said to myself, I spent at least 15 years when I should have been here, how stupid I’ve been, waiting for a change there.”

Gonzalez left his native country because of a lack of prospects for the future. “I don’t mean only in the economic sphere, but also intellectual freedom. It’s not about doing whatever you want, but at least being able to make plans with your salary, to be free to express your feelings and opinions. Leaving Cuba is a personal decision, but if you have dreams, goals and want options in your life, you have to do it,” he explains.

Before embarking on the trip he had to sell all his belongings, including his house. The first expense facing him was a passport, which cost 100 dollars, one of the most expensive in the world. He also had to pay some 2,000 dollars for certifications of his credentials and the ticket to Ecuador, plus about 350 dollars for a new visa because he wasn’t a tourist.

However, he thinks that “the worst is not the expense, which is hard; the worst is facing a completely new reality in capitalism.” Gonzales said that in the private clinics in Ecuador where he has worked they have paid him “much less than an Ecuadorian doctor would earn,” and even at times fired him without paying the salary owed to him, and without him being able to demand it.

However, “for professionals like us, it is best that we leave, because others cannot be legalized as quickly and are much more exploited. Their jobs are usually the lowest paid and, of course, if you get into any kind of trouble they immediately deport you to Cuba.”

Gonzales is aware that in the United States he will probably have to “paint bus stops,” but he still prefers that to the work he performs in Quito. “I want to see things from another perspective. I want to dedicate my remaining years to other activities, but not having to live in Cuba or here,”

The doctor believes that the situation in Ecuador is increasingly difficult for Cubans. “The Ecuadorians themselves do not want us, they see us as people who come to take away their jobs and they are happy with the decision to require visas,” he says. The physician estimates that the new measure, taking effect this Tuesday, has raised the prices charged by the coyotes. Before the measures, it cost 600 dollars to get to the border of Colombia and Panama. Today they are talking about 1,500 dollars,” he explained.

“In Colombia the situation is also critical, everyone agrees that it is the worst stretch of the journey, they cheat you, rob you, and many women have been raped. But desperation makes people take the risks.”

Gonzalez believes that behind the bottleneck at the Nicaraguan border is the hand of the Cuban government. “The two governments are hand in glove. I do not think that they will deport so many thousands of Cubans, but I believe the situation there could get worse. The social networks are a real blessing, letting us know the situation of our brothers,” he adds.

“People are leaving the island because Cubans are peaceful people and fear the military apparatus that governs us,” the doctor continues. He is convinced that even with a capitalist government on the island, it will be at least 20 years before the change is noticeable.

“Cuba needs a huge push to get out of the current situation,” he opines. “Our country has had development opportunities and completely lost them. The government continues to be in the hands of old men with a retrograde mentality and immersed in the same demagoguery and lies.”

Chronicle of a Cuban ‘Rafter’ on Foot (Part 3)

Overland immigrants cross the border between Mexico and the United States
Overland immigrants cross the border between Mexico and the United States

This is the third and final part of the testimony of a Cuban who has made the dangerous trip from Guatemala to the United State. Part 1 is herePart 2 is here.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Penton, Mexico City/Laredo Texas, 20 November 2015 – The smell of coffee draws me to the kitchen. The first rays of the sun have yet to appear when Domitila and her husband Juan get ready to start work on the farm. They protect us that day, hiding us from the Mexican police, always ready for deportations. “There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of Cubans who have passed through this house. They all say the same thing, ‘You can’t work there, you can’t live there’,” they say.

“Thanks to the Cubans we have this little ranch.” Their house barely has two rooms, one of which our group of immigrants is occupying. The family treasure is their farm, a little expanse of land with rubber trees. In this place we received the best care of the whole journey, we even get a bath.

A special solidarity joins this noble-hearted woman with the fate of Cuban migrants. Her daughter has lived in the United States for ten years. She arrived there as a ‘wetback’ and since then they haven’t seen each other. This was our last stage towards Mexico City. continue reading

A cold wind, in keeping with the altitude, and the endless lights leads us to believe we have arrived at the capital. The danger of a special police checkpoint makes us throw ourselves from the truck as fast as we can and take off into the semi-desert. The guide hurries us. Again, an altercation with the tropical version of the “revolutionary tough guy” is about to get us deported. The intervention of women prevents a river of blood, at least for the moment. The night passes without other mishaps.

To the joy of some and sadness of others, tonight is the last time we see the Hindus and the Central Americans. Halfway along the road a vehicle intercepted us, they climbed on and quickly took another route. According to what they tell us, they will enter at another border crossing.

We meet the “patroness,” a lady with the credentials of a trafficker who combines, in her features, virility with cunning and the female sixth sense

We arrived in Mexico City at three in the morning. A beautifully designed house, full of artworks and books of literature, religion and history suggest to us that we are in contact with someone knowledgeable and sensitive to the world of culture. Meeting the “patroness” is a huge surprise, a lady with the credentials of a trafficker who combines, in her features, virility with cunning and the female sixth sense.

“One Cuban who is coming alone!” Timidly I raise my hand. “Another!” A boy from the group joins me. “Another Cuban who is coming alone!” she says imperiously. “You! Get up, let’s go!” Maikel is traveling with his uncle, but his pleas are useless. It is decided and there is no turning back. He will have to leave his uncle alone.

The Cuban “tough guy,” who tried to sneak into this first departure, ended up with his tail between his legs on learning that even though he had given his wife’s jewels to the coyote in Guatemala, supposedly his money is not enough and he will have to wait in Mexico. We immediately think that this is the response of the organization to the aggressive attitude of the guide who took us to the capital.

After breakfast they lead us to a trailer. On the way I confirm my suspicions: the “patroness” is a woman of exceptional intelligence. Easy conversation and well-formed opinions, who holds forth fluently about the Mexican reality. She has dedicated her life to study, is not married and her main hobby is travel, such that in her 40 short years she knows well a good part of the world, including Cuba. After wishing us the best part of the journey, she makes us appreciate the privilege bestowed by the Cuban Adjustment Act and asks us to take advantage of this opportunity to improve ourselves and become good men.

The truck driver is also easygoing. His name is Oscar. He has spent many years transferring goods to the United States border. Although he is forced to smuggle Cubans to support his family, according to what he tells us, it has never entered his head to emigrate to the United States. With the money he makes, he “scrapes by” he tells us.

For nearly fifteen hours we are locked in that trailer, in places specially designed to hide people. Tiny little spaces we have to get into at every checkpoint that trips us up along the way, although, according to what Oscar says, everyone is paid.

“Corruption is the cancer that afflicts Mexico,” complains Oscar, “but we are all corrupt because the politicians themselves are the first in corruption and enrich themselves at the expense of the country.” While he traffics with three little Cubans towards the neighbor to the north, the generals, he thinks, do the same with arms and drugs. Everyone is involved, just at a different scale.

A white pick-up controlled by the fearsome Zetas is charged with getting us to the border. The trafficking ends with them, because they are the ones who control the underworld of the border area.

In Nuevo Laredo the border crossing is organized. A white pick-up controlled by the fearsome Zetas is charged with getting us to the border. The trafficking ends with them, because they are the ones who control the underworld of the border area. They tell us to leave everything we have, that is, barely a bag with a change of clothes that we carry hidden. Supposedly we should arrive at the international bridge to Laredo, Texas, with nothing, so as not to raise the suspicions of the Mexican police. After an exchange of words with our dealers, I manage to save the papers that testify to my university degree and a Cuban flag. All the rest is left in the past. They give us four Mexican pesos, with which we begin a new life. Before us, the bridge that marks the end of a life without rights.

The route of Cuban migration. (14ymedio)
The route of Cuban migration. (14ymedio)

Nothing compares with the thrill of feeling free. Holding back the tears, we advance as fast as possible to reach the other shore. The nightmare is over. Jungles, swamps, police, the fear of an assault, narcos, traffickers, all is left behind like the price to be paid for freedom.

A group of around 80 Cubans is spending the night at the US immigration facilities, which are overflowing with the flood of Cubans. Some have been waiting days to process their paperwork. Not all of them arrive for political reasons. Many comment that their intention is to return to Cuba as soon as they obtain US residency. They left Cuba, selling their homes or going into debt, via Ecuador for two basic reasons: desperation in the face of a situation with no outlet, and fear of losing the privileges awarded by the Cuban Adjustment Act, with the recent openings toward the regime in Havana.

They have never heard about any rights and they don’t know what democracy is.

It is a time to give thanks, for us to rejoice on reaching the land of freedom. Also a time to mourn for those who did not make it. We have crossed our on Red Sea, and now the task before us is not to long for the onions of Egypt, although what lies ahead is the desert that faces every migrant.

We can finally say, like José Martí: “Freedom is expensive and you have to decide to pay its price or resign yourself to living without it.”

Chronicle of a Cuban “Rafter” on Foot (Part 2 of 3) / 14ymedio, Mario J. Martinez Penton

Farm in the jungle of Veracruz where Cuban migrants stay on the way to the US. (MJ Penton)
Farm in the jungle of Veracruz where Cuban migrants stay on the way to the US. (MJ Penton)

This is the second part of the testimony of a Cuban who has made the dangerous trip from Guatemala to the United State. Part 1 is here

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Penton Martinez, Guatemala/Mexico Border, 17 November 2015 — The days pass slowly in the vicinity of the border Suchiate River. Guatemala, right now, is mourning the death of hundreds of people buried in the October landslide in the village of El Cambray. In the “waiting house,” as we have baptized it, we eight Cubans continue to wait for the moment when they will take us from here to cross the border and continue heading to the United States.

Cubans are arriving in dribs and drabs and bringing with them the stories of border crossings. Colombia, it seems, is the most important obstacle. From there they came by boat to Panama. A small plane got them into Guatemala and the human trafficking network took over from there. continue reading

Several thousand dollars are paid out on the trail of the main route of the Cuban exodus. People disappear falling in to the sea, are assaulted by thugs, women are raped… A whole accumulation of stories that we know by word of mouth and that some day the historians will have to write down for the historical memory of the Cuban nation.

Night falls at the moment when they suddenly alert us: “You’re leaving in 20 minutes.” Joy, surprise and consternation after 15 days of waiting, last words to family members, preparation for the final departure. “My brother, if you don’t hear anything of me in 15 days, you can tell Mom that something happened to me in Mexico.”

This is a truly dramatic moment for everyone. We will join another group of Central Americans on the road, at least that’s what we’re told. We have to get through 27 fixed checkpoints between Guatemala and Mexico City, plus whatever the Mexican Federal Police improvise.

The van ride to the river lasts half an hour. The coyote’s strident Christian music contrasts with the stillness of the cornfields. Finally, the coyote hands us over to the guide, the person who will take us to Mexico City. A final prayer with our solemn envoy, like the missionaries do it, is the memory our coyote Juan leaves us with.

The guide, Carlos, is a simple person, and I dare say there is something noble shining in his eyes. He lived for a time in the United States as a “wetback,” but returned to Guatemala when life became unbearable without his family. Now he dedicates himself to this “business,” which, according to what he tells us, earns him in one week what it would take three months to earn in his job as a farmhand.

They tell us we will be joined by two Guatemalans, among them a girl who, before leaving, asked the coyote to bring enough condoms because she fears being raped

The first challenge is to cross the Suchiate River. It is midnight and it was swelling, to the point of having to wait two hours to be able to do it, and not without risks. A fragile tractor innertube tied to some boards carries us to the other side. Here they tell us we will be joined by two Guatemalans, among them a girl who, before leaving, asked the coyote to bring enough condoms because she fears being raped. We walk for around two hours among cornfields and jungle. The dogs and lights from houses make us run like crazy. We all follow the leader because the orders are clear: we are in an exercise for survival.

We come to a creek that the recent rains have turned into a heavy stream. The water pushes us hard, reaching our chests, while we carry our passports on our heads so they won’t get wet. The two women in the group, one Cuban the other Guatemalan, have to be helped. This night ends around four in the morning, when we come to a house in the middle of nowhere. There we meet the other part of the group, eight Hindus who, without a word of Spanish, have launched themselves on the adventure of crossing half the world to join their families through the porous southern border of the United States.

Before dawn we are led, just as we are, wet and shivering with cold, to an island in the middle of a swamp. The boat trip is, without a doubt, spectacular. The richness of the mangrove, filled with alligators of course, reminds us of the Zapata Swamp in Cuba. The forests, the clouds painted red with the rising sun, the sensation of being close to the sea… On that island we hide all day.

On one side the sea, on the other the swamp. That is where I meet Erick, age nine, who with his deep black eyes and indigenous accent tells us of the dangers of the jungle and his dreams of becoming an architect to build a beautiful house for his mom, the powerful dreams of a child contrasting with the humbleness of dirt floors and sheet metal roofs.

One meal a day gives us strength to continue. At night we leave again, by boat, for the mainland. We are taken in trucks to the Mexican Army checkpoints, surrounded by thickets full of dangers: rivers, poisonous snakes, farmers protecting their properties from thugs… Long hours on the road at night, accompanied by the image of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint.

Once more, I confirm how little those of raised under the Revolution are trained to coexist with those who are different but pose no threat

Day surprises us in the heart of the jungle. We will have to wait for the protection of the night to continue on our way. A torrential rain makes us crowd tightly together under the only available blanket. These are difficult hours when care not to be discovered is combined with protecting our documents that prove we are Cubans. Again, one meal a day.

With my deficient English I try to translate what the guide is saying for the disconcerted Hindus. Some Cubans start to show an antipathy towards those of another race but the rest pass the time praying. Mutual ignorance, fueled by the primal instincts of a suspicious islander, thin the atmosphere almost to the point of starting a fight. Playing the role of mediator is hard work. Once more, I confirm how little those of raised under the Revolution are trained to coexist with those who are different but pose no threat. The anthropological damage is done and it will take generations to overcome it.

Again, roads impassable at night, feet covered with blisters, skin bitten by insects. Hungry and tired we cross a railroad line, toward another border checkpoint. It is two in the morning when the guide tells us to be silent, after hearing movement up ahead. The sharp stones of the rail bed don’t help. Apparently attacks are common here. Tonight we’re lucky. The attacker pretends to be asleep next to a huge machete. Accustomed as he is to frightening small groups of Central American “wetbacks” who don’t usually exceed three or four people, our group seems like too much for him to take on alone. For now, we are safe.

The road to the next point of rest is extremely uncomfortable. In a fetal position we are crammed into and hidden in the truck. Only the moments where there is a threat of the police are a break, because we have to get down and rush to hide ourselves in the bush. The night ends and the signs announce we are in Veracruz. We have spent three days in the land of the Aztecs. We arrive at a farm where we spend the day.

Mexico City, the next stage of the journey, is getting closer.

___________________________________________________________

Editor’s note: The author worked as a religious consecrated to the Catholic Church in Guatemala for almost two years before embarking on the journey to the United States.

Chronicle of a ‘Rafter’ on Foot (Part 1 of 3) / 14ymedio, Mario Penton Martinez

A group of people crossing from Guatemala to the Mexican side aboard a raft. (Manu URESTE)
A group of people crossing from Guatemala to the Mexican side aboard a raft. (Manu URESTE)

Today we publish the first part of the testimony of a Cuban who has made the dangerous trip from Guatemala to the United States

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Penton Martinez, Guatamalan/Mexican Border, 13 November 2015 – I live proud of being Cuban. I always have been. Cuba evokes the warmth of a mother’s lap, the tenderness of my great-nephews, friends, my first love, the pain of a suffering nation. I am one of a generation born on the threshold of the euphemistically called Special Period, so also coming to mind are blackouts, scarcities, building collapses and censorship. How can I forget that I had to come to Guatemala to hear the music of Celia Cruz for the first time, or to learn of the valiant struggle of the opponents of the Cuban regime? How can I forget that rights like freedom of expression, assembly, enterprise and the press were something that I never experienced, things that according to what was said could only be obtained “outside”?

It was pouring down rain in the Guatemalan capital the day they gave me the news. “After serious consideration we believe that your path is not to be a consecrated religious.” The temperature dropped and like every Caribbean in these mountainous lands, I began to feel a glacial cold. A lapidary moment. One by one the floor tiles start to sink to the rhythm of my life: the dreams that I had forged, the people with whom I had related, the university students, everything was being erased by that hurricane, whose vortex would be the duty of returning to Cuba. continue reading

It took a few hours to get over the shock: the decision was made. I would melt into this human river that had been written about in the independent media, and that few or no one in the world knew: the hemorrhage of Cubans who risk Central America and Mexico to get to the United States. Rather than return to slavery, at least I would try to get to a land of freedom. I knew it could cost me my life, but it was worth it to try.

The whole border region lives off human trafficking. My experiences confirmed it.

The first point was to find an appropriate coyote. Not all are reliable, so you have to make sure it is someone who has made successful trips. Through friends who made the journey previously I got Juan’s number. What first drew my attention was his ring tone. It was a popular Christian doxology. “It is so people will feel confident,” I thought. On the other end of the cell a voice assured me that the journey would be a success and that a group of Cubans was already waiting for me to leave. The cost, $2,500 US, in cash in Guatemala, was the price of the American dream, $5,000 if it was from Ecuador and you wanted to be sure to arrive. I had to leave, on my own account and at my own risk, from one of the most violent countries in the world to a border city with 18,700 quetzales in exchange. They were waiting for me there.

The bus that took me to the site was a tower of Babel: Africans, Hindus, Cubans… It seemed very ordinary, as no one was surprised. After a six hour journey, I arrived at my destination. At least a dozen people crowded around the terminal offering, to anyone who looked foreign, help in crossing the border illegally. Another passenger told me that the whole border region lives off human trafficking. My experiences confirmed it.

Behind me, making me shudder: “Are you Juan?” I was facing the emissary of my coyote. Following a positive response, we wended our way through a web of intricate alleys to a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. “Don’t worry, bro, this neighborhood is controlled by us, there’s no problem.” Both the fake Cuban accent and the difficulty of getting to the place sparked the exact opposite of what the guide intended.

That same afternoon, I was installed in one of the many houses used to hide the island migrants. In the full light of day, and unrestrainedly, because the law in Guatemala constitutes these networks tied to violence and nobody knows for sure how many millions of dollars move. Just to give an idea, it is said that globally, human trafficking generates gross revenues of more than 32 billion dollars annually, some $13,000 on average that each subject brings his coyote.

It was there that I met in person, I learned later, one of the most recognized coyotes in the traffic between Central America and Mexico. His humble demeanor hardly reflected the power he possessed. Emerging from the underworld of rural Guatemala, this person had trafficked drugs and belonged to the maras (armed groups or gangs who generally control the extortion, human trafficking and drugs in the region). Alcohol and drug use, along with little schooling, marked his life. In time, and according to what he himself told me that afternoon, he converted to evangelical Christianity, and today is its staunch promoter.

It is said that human trafficking globally generates more than 32 billion dollars annually, some $13,000 on average that each subject brings his ‘coyote’

Juan alternates conversation with preaching, and while he charged me $2,500, he affirmed to me that today Christ is the center of his life and the one who has given him everything he possesses. “God and Cubans,” he corrects himself. Under his protection are charitable sites and he shares his life between both passions: “The Church and crowning people so that they get to their destination: the flagpole with the stars and stripes.” Before leaving he let me know that I should leave there everything I owned. I will only be allowed to depart with a change of clothes and my papers. The rest will go into the coffers of his charities. “It doesn’t matter, at the end of the day when they will crown you in la yuma,” he blurts out as consolation.

Once the coyote left, I was alone in an unknown house, in the midst of an unknown city and in the hands of unknown people without very good references. I’m facing a mountain of clothes, shoes and the belongings of those who came before me. Judging by the number of garments there were dozens. On the walls graffiti recorded the names and hometowns of Cubans. Manuel from Matanzas, May 2013; Yoenia González from Camagüey, December 2013; Yendry from Bayamo, June 2015… What had become of them? Did they make it to the United States or are they in a mass grave? Images of Auschwitz crossed my mind, while on the roof rats frolicked. The die is cast. I waited three days in solitary confinement, three days “with the Creed in my mouth” as my grandfather used to say: facing death and praying to God to save me.

Thus began the long road of a “rafter” on foot. Swamps, jungles, rivers, robbers, internal divisions and police would take turns adding to the difficulties of a crossing already difficult, to reach free soil.

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Editor’s note: The author worked as a religious consecrated to the Catholic Church in Guatemala for almost two years before embarking on the journey to the United States.