Ivan Garcia, 13 August 2016 — Like many Cubans who emigrate, Ariel celebrated by buying a case of Domincan-made Presidente beer and two bottles of aged Havana Club rum the day before his flight to Cancun.
Only his father and a couple of his friends knew of his plans. Weeks earlier, his wife flew to Miami legally as part of a family reunification program. Ariel, who did not want to wait two or three years to reunite with his wife, saved enough money and contacted a variety of people, who arranged his trip to Mexico.
Within three days he had crossed the border and after a thirty-six-hour drive arrived in the sun-drenched city to reunite with his wife.
These are the stories with happy endings that inspire Cuba’s would-be emigrants, who hope to scrape up enough money to make the leap.
The current wave of Cuban emigrants is different from those of the past. In the 1960s those who emigrated were mainly business owners whose properties had been confiscated by the Castro regime and military officials in Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship who were fleeing prison or the firing squad.
1980 would mark the beginning of a stampede by Cubans who, in spite of being indoctrinated by the military dictatorship, were escaping poverty, the tedious litany of alleged American military threats and the social polarization of those who think differently.
The emigration wave of 1994 was more of the same, with Cubans fleeing the Castro brothers’ ideological and economic madhouse. Even at a time when leaving the country illegally carried long prison terms, there were always people willing to fling themselves into the sea on anything that would float in search of freedom and the chance to try their luck ninety miles to the north.
All told — after Fidel Castro’s takeover, the radicalization of the military dictatorship, insane economic policies and overbearing social controls — close to two and a half million Cubans have opted for exile.
With the advent of a new period of economic austerity and the unpredictability of the immediate future, thousands of Cubans have decided to pack their bags. After leaving Cuba legally, a large percentage now travel overland, taking advantage of changes in emigration laws adopted by the government of Raul Castro in 2013.
In the last two years, as many as 150,000 Cubans have left either legally or illegally. Some decide to emigrate to Europe with the help of an Italian, who might be someone’s grandfather. Or they claim Spanish citizenship under the Historical Memory Law.* From the vantage point of the Old World, they can survey the scene, returning to Cuba every two years so as not to lose certain rights they have as Cuban citizens.
The latest group is waiting for the end of the Castros’ strongman rule to decide their future. Others are leaving, never to return. Ten years after the timid reforms by Raul Castro’s regime, the quality of life for most Cubans remains the same as or worse than it was in 2006
The poorest of the poor — a man like Heriberto, who collects empty soft drink and beer cans in the Tenth of October township — are not emigrating due to lack of funds. “If I had money or a house to sell, I would have done it right away. It’s better to be a beggar in Miami than in Havana,” he notes as he carries a sack full of cans.
A not insignificant number of small family business owners are making plans to travel or to emigrate. Carlos, a sociologist, has noticed that “people who make money and who have successful businesses are deciding to emigrate or see it as a distinct possibility. It is an indication that they are not confident about the reforms. Personal experience tells them that the government could reverse course at any time.”
Jorge Luis, a taxi driver, believes that, “for the state, private businesses are a necessary evil. They could dismantle them at any moment with a combination of high taxes, administrative harassment and audits. The government is not interested in advancing private enterprise. That is why the goal for many people like me is to make money and then emigrate with the entire family. ”
Diana, the owner of a prosperous restaurant business, regrets not having been able to emigrate much sooner. “Things are complicated now,” she explains. “I have three children and family members I would never leave behind. But my plan is to be able to establish myself outside of Cuba. There is no future here; this will not change.”
Colombia’s deportation of the first group fourteen Cubans, announced through the official press in a memo from the Foreign Ministry, does not mean most emigration plans will be cancelled.
At least that is what Diego thinks. Ten months ago he asked for a lighter work schedule so that he could spend more time buying and selling dollars. “I made an exploratory trip to Russia to check out the possibilities of getting to the United States through the Bering Straights,” he says. “In the end I decided to go through Mexico. With all the corruption there, you can get anything if you pay cash. So in September I will be flying to Mexico City.”
And he will not be going alone. Accompanying him will be his wife and ten-month-old infant. Braving the dangers that come with a journey led by unscrupulous and violent human smugglers, many Cubans put themselves at risk on this migratory adventure, traveling with the elderly, small children and pregnant women.
Neither the repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act nor the massive deportation of Cubans from Ecuador and Colombia will deter Cubans determined to leave their homeland. The fact is people will always try to escape from a country where life has become unbearable.
*Translator’s note: A 2007 Spanish law that, among other things, grants certain rights to descendants of the victims of the Spanish civil war and the subsequent Franco dictatorship.