Leaving Cuba But Stranded on Another Island / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

A group of Cubans detained in Trinidad and Tobago by immigration authorities. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Miami, 25 January 2017 — They left Cuba before January 12 and are now stranded on the island of Trinidad and Tobago, northeast of Venezuela. They arrived with the advantage of not needing a visa, but they have lost hope of reaching the borders of the United States after the cancellation of wet foot/dry foot policy.

Unofficial figures estimate that more than a thousand Cubans have arrived in Trinidad and Tobago and are waiting to be able to leave for the United States. Some received refugee status in this time, conferred by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but have difficulty obtaining a work permit.

Recently 15 Cubans detained in Trinidad and Tobago for being undocumented, including 12 men and 3 women, stated that they would rather die than return to their own country

Zenaida, a fictitious name, still has a son in Cuba and fears to give her real identity to the story she has experienced in recent months, but her desire to tell what happened demonstrates, at times, a touch of recklessness.

“The word that they are offering asylum has gotten out, and if the immigration authorities hadn’t turned back a large number, there would be considerably more of us.” Those stuck there when their visas expire are sent to jail.

Recently, 15 Cubans detained in Trinidad and Tobago for being undocumented, among them 12 men and 3 women, declared that they would rather die than return to their own country. They are trapped on one island and trying to avoid being returned to another.

Zenaida had a job with the Cuban Workers Center (CTC) – nominally a labor union, but entirely controlled by the government – but was disillusioned with the official ideology. “Despite experiencing the time of the mass exodus in the 1990s, I never thought to leave the country because I’m very attached to my family and my only daughter,” she says.

Her nonconformity started from the time she was a member of the Young Communist Union. “I realized that Robertico Robaina, our leader at the time, obeyed the principle of ‘do what I say and not what I do’.” Zenaida worked on a poultry farm and one day discovered, “a great embezzlement of the birds, where the records were falsified.” On confronting the people involved she learned that among the embezzlers was the director general of the enterprise. Frustration washed over her.

She decided to attend the course for political cadres to get away from the poultry farm. “I couldn’t imagine I would go from one hell to another.” After being a witness to the opportunism and the double standards of many of her colleagues, the little faith she still had in the system was completely destroyed.

“I requested to be released from my job after witnessing the outrage that the opposition figure Jorge Luis Perez ‘Antunez’ and his family were subjected to,” she tells 14ymedio. “That was the trigger that made me decide not to continue there.

“I started working secretly in my aunt’s paladar (private restaurant). There they offered me 100 Cuban convertible pesos (roughly the same in dollars) and the cost of my passport if I would go to Trinidad for seven days in order to import clothing,” she said.

But the fate of the “mule” took a turn when, passing through the airport in Havana, she happened to greet and speak with the author of this article. One of the women she was traveling with, who had witnessed the exchange, returned to Cuba before her, and told one of Zenaida’s neighbors that she was now “one of those human rights people.” “Small town, big hell,” she says, recalling that incident, “the news spread like wildfire and even my husband was called in by State Security.”

Trinidad and Tobago Airport

“My mother and my son were also questioned about my behavior,” she says. “I was aware of the consequences I would have to face if I returned to Cuba.”

“There are families who have been stranded here  waiting for a host country for more than two years. I think the world is not aware of the drama Cubans experience”

She applied for political asylum and now her legal situation is complex. “Immigration took my passport and gave me a card that’s called a supervision order, that allows me to be in the country freely, but doesn’t allow me to work.” Zenaida has to work in the shadows to survive. “I do it on my own and I do the hardest cleaning jobs that the natives here reject.”

For the moment, she is receiving some help from a Catholic organization, Living Water Community, which consists of a food allocation that includes rice, sugar, grains, flour, toilet paper, soap and some clothing donated by others.

After some time she will have her first interview with United Nations representatives and only then will she be able to obtain refugee status. “There are families who have been stranded here waiting for a country to take them for more than two years. I think the world isn’t aware of the drama Cubans experience,” says Zenaida.

Although Zenaida has been optimistic since reuniting with her husband and celebrates not being alone, her feelings are contradictory with respect to emigration “I do not know if we are living in limbo, but only now do I know that fleeing resolves nothing. We are left without our customs, our families, our roots, and clash with the hard reality of the immigrant. We will only be free when we don’t cross jungles and oceans looking for an answer that is only inside ourselves.” And she concludes with regret, “What a pity that it is only now that I understand all this!”