Ivan Garcia, 26 January 2018 — When it seems that all the doors for emigration to a first world country are closed, that the blue Cuban passport is not welcome at most border crossings, and putting yourself into a boat to get to the United States is not just useless but suicidal, Mayra, a university student, puts together her emigration strategy spending many hours surfing different websites looking for a gap through which she can squeeze out.
Between 1962 and 1994, the traditional way for Cubans wanting to leave Cuba illegally was to build a flimsy wooden boat able to survive the strong currents of the Straits of Florida, drop anchor, and be rescued by a US coastguard, which automatically got you US residence.
Following the summer of 1994, with the migration agreements signed by Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro, they tried to impose some order and security for illegal maritime immigration. They agreed to approve 20,000 family reunification visas a year. And, to put a brake on the exodus of the boat people, although they didn’t know how many people had drowned and were lying in the Straits of Florida, the Washington officials had the idea for the “wet foot/dry foot” policy, a rather cynical version of American benevolence.
If a boat is captured in the open sea, the people are sent back to Cuba with an undertaking that they will not be put in jail. If they have managed somehow to enter US waters, then bingo!, they open the revolving door to get into paradise.
In January 2017, Barack Obama repealed the wet foot/dry foot policy. Following the island authorities’ actions to make migration more flexible, starting in winter 2013, Cubans started to arrive by plane, as well as by sea or land (crossing borders).
Between 2013 and 2017, if we add to the 80,000 Cubans who emigrated with pre-approved paperwork to join their families (20,000 each year), those who travelled thousands of miles from Ecuador and Central America to the US border, around 800,000 Cubans emigrated from their country in the last four years.
There began to appear in the social networks instructions on how to avoid dangerous journeys , and dozens of tricks on how to hide your money. It all started in cyber cafes or wifi hotspots in parks in all the provinces of the island. Future emigrants got in touch with people-traffickers or middlemen, who advised them about the journey.
People began to burn their bridges. They sold their houses, cars, motorbikes, and domestic appliances to get money, or they saved what they made running small private businesses. In many cases, their relatives sent them the money through Western Union.
But, after January 2017, the overland marathon to the United States stopped. Donald Trump, a record-breaking tweeter, withdrew sixty per cent of the consular officials, because of the supposed acoustic attacks on US diplomatic staff located in Havana.
Now, those people wanting to emigrate to join their families have to go via Colombia, at much greater cost. In one year, the number of Cubans getting into the US fell dramatically. More than 50,000 Cubans entered the US in the 2016 fiscal year and, according to the State Department, in 2017 the new policy reduced informal immigration from Cuba by 64% in comparison with 2016.
But thousands of Cubans have not stopped wanting to emigrate. Three times a week, Mayra, the student, trawls the internet, looking for “a scholarship or summer school, anything, which lets me go abroad, preferably to a first world country, and then weigh up the chances of moving temporarily or permanently.”
The Cuban academic world is like the sinking of the Titanic. To the tune of the songs in praise of Fidel Castro, and while the boat is sinking, hundreds of professors, postgrads, doctors and scientists, are individually trying to get an internship or attend a conference organised by a higher education organisation abroad.
“It’s every man for himself. One way or another, everyone who has contacts calls them up to get a scholarship or a post in a foreign university. The ideal is the highest level US academic network. But a place in a German, Swiss or Nordic university isn’t bad either. Or in Chile with its economic stability, which is fashionable. Also Mexico, with all its problems of violence, has for many years been the destination for many Cuban intellectuals and university professors,” comments an academic.
Information, cybernetics, software and automatic control specialists are also creating opportunities for personal development and distance-based work contracts. Those without university degrees are also looking for shortcuts.
That’s what Luis Mario, an auto mechanic, is doing. In his opinion, “although the pickings have slimmed down, and emigrating the the States is a pipe-dream, you have to keep looking worldwide for other viable options for getting out of Cuba. I am looking at four possibilities: a two year work contract in Uruguay, the Dominican Republic or in Chile, because the authorities in Chile are pretty easy-going on the Cubans. And, if none of those three works out, the fourth option is marry a foreign woman who lives in Kansas.”
The average Cuban doesn’t let himself be pigeonholed with a specific endpoint. Obviously, Miami or Madrid are ideal. “But, if you can’t get into the United States, look somewhere else. Spain isn’t a bad place, because, although Cubans going there are illegals, the immigration police concentrate on the Africans and Arabs. You can get to Spain via Italy. You buy a package trip for a week in Italy, and the embassy issues you with a month’s European visa, and then you go to Madrid or Barcelona by train. Spain is hot, but it’s ten times better than Cuba”, says Silvio, from Pinar del Rio, now living for a year with his wife in Valdedebas in Madrid.
Yeni, an ex-prostitute, on vacation in Havana, says “what every prostitute dreams of is getting out of Cuba. Thanks to my Chilean boyfriend, six months ago I set up in Valparaiso.”
You can find Cubans as far away as Canberra, the capital of Australia, or in a kibbutz in Israel. “The problem is adapting to the languages, food and customs. I have been in Qatar seven years, and I can tell you I wouldn’t change it for any other country in the world”, says Cesar, from Bayamo, Oriente.
Although you can of course choose where you go, thousands of Cubans planning to emigrate prefer the United States. And one city, Miami. The same culture, the same climate, and 2.5 million countrymen talking at the tops of their voices in the Publix supermarkets. And if you stop at the Key West lighthouse, some say, you can smell Havana.
Translated by GH