How Cubans Emigrate (There’s Always More to Tell)

Dariela Aquique

Playing dominoes in Santiago de Cuba. Photo: Janis Hernandez

HAVANA TIMES — When I began writing my first post about the ways in which Cubans emigrate, I knew from the start that I was dealing with one of those issues that cannot be encompassed in a single commentary. This is why I planned a three-post piece on the subject.

The first piece dealt with the few and less than attractive options we have in Cuba in terms of legally traveling somewhere, should we want to and be able to afford such a trip. The second pointed out that, as far as illegal and massive migrations of people is concerned, we can place Lampedusa and the Strait of Florida on the same plane.

Some of the comments left by readers helped me chose the topic for this third post on how Cubans emigrate, an issue one can always say more about. Since it is often true, as the saying goes, that “truth is stranger than fiction”, I am going to begin by telling you a story about an incident I know about first-hand.

Around Christmas, 2008, while most people – or, better, those who could – were preparing their New Year’s dinner, a group of 16, mostly young people from Santiago were getting in touch with individuals in Manzanillo, Granma who build rafts used to leave the country illegally.

Once ready, after having agreed to the price of 1,000 CUC (US $ 1,100) per person, the group left on the raft in the early morning, setting sail from a mangrove swamp on the coast of Manzanillo. Before they had reached an area close to the Cayman Islands, the scow had already broken down.

They were shipwrecked for 11 days (and nights) and went through all of their water and food reserves. Disoriented and adrift on the damaged vessel, they improvised a sail out of a sheet that the only woman in the group had taken with her. They ended up at Isla Cisne (“Swan Island”), a small islet on the Caribbean Sea belonging to Honduras.

After disembarking, they realized it was a nearly deserted island inhabited by only a handful of Honduran coast guards, stationed there to prevent the place from being used as a drug-trafficking point. They would come and go and receive their food, medicine and drinking water through air drops.

The Cuban migrants spent two months on that island. The Honduran coast guards would occasionally give them some water and sugar. The rest of the time, they survived on what they could hunt, fish and pluck from trees. They were there long enough for their hair and beards to grow out.

Unable to contact anyone, they were thought dead by their relatives and friends. One day, a merchant ship docked on the island and agreed to take them to the mainland. Once in Honduras, they contacted their families in Cuba and the United States, which was their final destination.

Of the 16 in the group, only two requested political asylum in Honduras to legalize their residence in the country. One of them still lives there today. The other was murdered by hired assassins after becoming involved with drug traffickers.

They parted and each went their separate ways. Some were picked up by their relatives in the United States or helped arrive there. Some worked a few months to save up money and pay for transportation, from one country to the next, in order to arrive at the Mexican border.

In Mexico, they were captured by the police and jailed. They were kept in the Tapachula prison for 45 days. They say that there were immigrants from across the continent there, including many other Cubans.  

There, they were subjected to a kind of perverse lottery, where some would get a safe-conduct to cross the border into the United States (for which they had to pay a certain sum of money) and the majority would be deported back to Cuba.

They had sold nearly all of their belongings and risked their lives trying to reach the United States.

In a second crack at it (paying for a spot on a speedboat, this time around), some reached their goal and today are permanent residents of the United States. Only four members of that group are still in Cuba, but they haven’t given up on the idea of leaving. Nor have they stopped trying.


6 thoughts on “How Cubans Emigrate (There’s Always More to Tell)

  • Thanks for those details Daniel.
    It will help the ignorant and disinformed ( those deliberately misinformed by the government and corporate media in the U.S. ) to PERHAPS see the thinking behind making legal entry very difficult to impossible for most Cubans and illegal and dangerous “balsero” method the only way to get to the U.S.
    Objectively, those dual policies have to be seen as both incredibly inhumane and very deliberate on the part of the U.S government and all those who support those policies .

  • Miami also has a 35% poverty rate to add to your list and which human misery drives the crime and drug trade and use in Miami that is so conspicuously absent in ( state “socialist ) Cuba .
    The difference is that one society does what it can to aid the poorest and the other is dedicated to systemic exploitation of the poor and blaming them for being poor .
    Those polar opposites are what create people’s social attitudes .
    A mean-spirited and enforced capitalist economy creates mean-spirited and criminal thinking in the population at large .

  • Oh sorry I forgot to add McDonalds and Wal-Mart… Capitalism at its best…

  • That is a really sad story… I know a few Cuban people who have family in Florida. And who have also visited the US a few times… They have seen the reality of the USA and say that there is no way that they would ever wish to live there. And I as a Canadian have also been in Miami. Money drugs and crime… what more could one ask for???

  • Easy to answer, you need to get an appointment in the US Insterests Section in Cuba in order to get an interview, usually the appointment is given for you to attend several months after, the visa application costs 160 cuc (about 175 usd) but the application is almost always denied because most cubans fail to prove the “deep ties with cuba” point, needed for the application to succeed, that means that you have to prove that you will return to the island after your stay in the US and only few people can actually prove that. So the “wet foot-dry foot” is an appealing option when you lose the hope of getting a visa.

  • Dariela, how long does it take to get a visa from the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba and how much does that visa application cost for a Cuban to get legal entrance to the U.S. so that the dangerous “wet foot-dry foot” route to the U.S. need not be taken ?

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