Ivan Garcia, 19 July 2015 — Norge imagines himself sipping Cuban coffee at the Versailles restaurant in Miami on July 20 as officials of the Castro regime in white guayaberas and Americans in jackets and ties listen to their national anthems being played and watch flags being hoisted at their respective embassies in Washington and Havana.
For a couple of months he has been planning an illegal escape from the northern coast of the island with a group of friends. Days before setting off to sea in a metal boat outfitted with a diesel engine, Norge consults his Santeria priestess to see if luck is on his side.
The woman throws several snails onto a wooden board and says, “Now is the time.” The rafters then accelerate their plans.
“Once diplomatic relations are reestablished between Cuba and the United States, the Cuban Adjustment Act’s days will be numbered. I don’t have family in the yuma* and it isn’t getting any easier here. As usual, things keep going downhill, so I hope to be playing dominos in Miami on July 20,” Norge says optimistically.
He and his friends have played their last cards. “Some sold their cars and other valuables to raise money so we could build the safest boat possible. We’ve gotten GPS and some members of the group also have maritime experience,” he notes.
No sooner had President Obama and General Castro concluded their respective speeches on December 17, 2014 in which they announced their decision to reestablish diplomatic relations than Cubans who had been thinking about emigrating, legally or illegally, to the yuma began speeding up their plans.
If you talk to people who have been waiting since dawn in a park across the street from the future U.S. embassy in Vedado for a consular interview, you will find that the new diplomatic landscape has made them more dubious than happy.
A significant number of Cubans are planning to leave permanently or are applying for temporary visas before the United States turns off the spigot.
“I can already see it coming. For every ten people interviewed for tourist visas, nine are turned down. I think that, after relations are restored on July 20, they’ll only approve family reunification trips. Temporary visas will be reserved for government officials and dissidents,” claims Servando who, in spite of being twice denied a visa to visit his daughter, keeps on trying.
The numbers speak for themselves. According to the U.S. Immigration Service almost nineteen million Cubans have entered the country by sea or overland from Mexico since the beginning of the fiscal year on October 1, a figure equivalent to the total for the previous year. Since the diplomatic thaw was announced, the figure is two-thirds that.
The increase in the number of undocumented Cubans arriving in the United States due to the resumption of diplomatic relations is so high that social service agencies in Florida cannot cope. They are near collapse, with two month-long waiting lists, as press reports indicate.
This situation is hindering resettlement of people in other states as well as delaying work permits and emergency financial relief. Newcomers fear the resumption of diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level will put an end to immigration laws favorable to Cubans.
Analysts have said that the steps taken by the Obama administration do not alert the Cuban Adjustment Act, which is not in danger and which cannot simply be repealed by a presidential decree.
In essence it is what is referred to as a public law (Public Law 89-7320). It was passed by the 89th Congress and has the status of a federal statute. In contrast to so-called private laws, it deals with issues of general interest and can only be amended, revised or revoked by the Congress of the United States.
Several Cuban-American politicians have called for it to be repealed or at least amended to reflect current realities. A significant number of Cubans granted protection under the Cuban Adjustment Act have been visiting the island in recent months on a kind of spree.
Curiously, their views coincide with those of the aged military regime. Cuba is the only country on the planet which seeks repeal of a law whose outcome would adversely impact its citizens’ emigration prospects and federal protections.
If the prospects are troubling for those with dreams of emigrating to the United States, for new private-sector entrepreneurs the political shift of two nations caught up in their own Cold War looks promising.
Onelio, the owner of a four-car fleet of cars and jeeps used as collective taxis, believes the reestablishment of diplomatic relations represents a golden business opportunity.
“If the government wants people to live better, then things have to change. First they have to lift the internal embargo on small business owners and stop being afraid that Cubans might make a lot of money. Then they will have to come up with a strategy to make Obama’s proposals effective so that the people can benefit from them. If they keep singing the same old tune (outdated rhetoric), the mask will fall and the world will see who is really responsible for poverty in Cuba, “says Onelio.
The majority of the population applauds the new political script. “It’s better to live in peace and harmony,” says a Havana taxi driver. “People are tired of the scary rhetoric against the United States. The Americans are our neighbors and have always been seen as an example by the average Cuban, both before the revolution and now. The rest is cheap political jockeying.”
Afro-Cubans move at a different pace compared to their nation’s leaders. Seven months after the historical accord, the island’s population aspires to more than a name change for the U.S. Interests Section.
“People want to see concrete things,” notes Rosario. “More food, the city and its housing renovated, improvements in transport, broadband internet, inexpensive international phone calls, cheaper airline tickets and for private business people to be able to import directly from the United States. None of that is happening. We don’t want more blather; we want to see advances.”
Even the dissident community is divided. One group supports the new policies while another believes too much has been given up without getting anything from an autocratic regime clinging to the past.
Cuba’s ruler live in another galaxy. They have a sense of vertigo. They plan on taking things slow so as not to lose control.
For now, the benefits of change exist only in the analyses and the conjectures of academics, politicians and journalists. Therefore, the plans of those such as Norge, who are fleeing the country on makeshift rafts, are taking on added urgency. “God willing, I will watch the embassy ceremonies on television. From Miami. ”
*Translator’ note: Cuban slang for the United States.