14ymedio, 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.
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.”