By Glenda Boza Ibarra (El Toque)
HAVANA TIMES – Over 100 people have commented on a Facebook post that asked for information about mules traveling to Russia. Most of them weren’t answering the question, but instead offering to go.
Moscow has been the chosen destination of hundreds of Cubans ever since flights began operating again last November. Keeping tourist flights from Russia running has given Cubans a chance to go to this country and return with these airlines.
Some 25,000 Cubans are entering Russia every year, according to statistics from Border Control published in El Pais. Vladimir Putin’s government doesn’t require Cubans to have a visa; you just need a plane ticket and a valid passport to get into Russian territory. Cubans can stay there for 90 days as tourists, without a work permit.
Shortages in Cuba and the opportunity to sell products bought abroad (in Russia in this case) has weighed heavier than the threat of COVID-19. Neither compulsory quarantine or having to pay in hard currency or the chance of being stranded if borders are closed have stopped Cubans from arriving at the Moscow-Sheremetyevo International Airport. Russia presents an opportunity, and where Cubans “get a chance, they take it”.
Traveling to Russia to buy
You can find all kinds of cheap wholesale merchandise at the Lyublino wholesale market, in southeast Moscow: clothes, personal hygiene and cosmetic products, electrical appliances, jewelry, lingerie, etc. Cubans arrive there every day, even during the pandemic.
In Lyublino, there are stores for Cubans. Some of them use a flag to attract island residents. At other stores, they are received with the well-known greeting, “que bola, asere?” Many business owners are Cubans who emigrated to Moscow years ago.
Lula Morgunova knows almost all of them. She has traveled to Russia six times in the past three years. Going to Lyublino market is routine for her. “I wanted to travel to Panama, but my son didn’t have a visa and it wasn’t easy to get one,” she says. “We can come here without any problems and it’s easier for both of us, as I know the language.”
Lula arrived in Cuba in 1983, after marrying a Cuban who had studied in former Czechoslovakia. A few years ago, she began to travel to buy things and take advantage of her Russian citizenship.
“I first went to Panama as a mule. Then, I saw how the business worked and I joined up with some friends. Later, we began traveling to Moscow and I decided that my son could accompany me. He is 22 years old.”
The 58-year-old Russian woman has been traveling with a group of Cubans to Moscow, who don’t know Russian. She was paid as a translator on those first trips. But she has offered her services for free in recent trips. The group has become like family.
Migdalia is a member of the group. She used to travel to Nicaragua, but flights were canceled and she had to find another “escape route”. So, she spoke to her neighbor Lula and they traveled together.
“The language was the worst thing,” Migdalia laments. If I don’t understand English, then I’m definitely not going to understand Russian. “I was lucky to have Lula who is also somebody I trust. Some Cubans who travel regularly look for mules who know how to speak Russian.”
Emigrating from Cuba to Russia
While the Russian Embassy in Havana has explained that “staying in Russia for more than 90 days without a visa is a crime, therefore, they will be subject to Russian immigration laws and suffer the consequences as a result,” many Cubans touching down in Moscow decide not to leave.
Between January and December 2019, the Russian Federation’s Department of Immigration recorded over 10,000 Cubans staying illegally. Another 6213 are staying legally with tourist, student, work visas and for other purposes. While only 44 have been granted citizenship and 431 received permanent or temporary residence permits.
A popular way to get residency in Russia is marrying a national of this country, “but getting legal status via other means is pretty much impossible because bureaucracy is very long. I know very few Cuban residents,” Yordan Roque says.
Yordan arrived in Russia in 2013, to stay. The language was the hardest thing for him, which is crucial: “If you don’t know how to speak Russian, it’s very likely you’ll get scammed or your chances of finding work are slim. It’s a large country, with a different culture to our own. While the police don’t pay too much attention to us, being illegal affects us because we don’t have a right to anything,” he says.
In April 2020, a feature article in El País reported the stories of many Cubans who had decided to stay in Russia and had found (illegal) work at supermarkets, in construction work, and cleaning. However, most of them still haven’t been able to make back the money they invested into their trip to Russia.
Zulema de las Mercedes Pardo paid 3000 USD for a plane ticket, accommodation, the promise of papers and a “stable” job. She sold her room in a dilapidated tenement in Vedado and left for Russia in 2019. Photos of the Football World Cup, the year before, had “dazzled her”.
“I saw photos of friends on Facebook looking so happy and walking in Moscow’s square, that I fell into the trap of thinking that everything is great,” she says on WhatsApp. “I haven’t been able to see my daughter again, nor have I been able to make enough money to bring her over. I’m not in a position to either.”
Zulema laments not being able to get legal status in the more than two years she’s been there. She receives photos of her 6-year-old daughter, who is being looked after by her paternal grandmother, on WhatsApp.
Staying in an apartment with another nine people (six men and three women), she had managed to work temporary jobs for less than 1000 rubles per day (14 USD).
“I’ve done everything: cleaning, selling products, working in the fields… whatever needs to be done,” she says. “But going back isn’t an option. Not yet.”
Although Yordan, who has had better luck than Zulema, believes that some Cubans are “to blame” for Russians “exploiting or abusing them” or seeing them as garbage.
“In the years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen how the affection Russians had because of the historic relations between both countries, has changed,” he says. “One of the scandals that moved Russian society was when a Cuban killed another, and ditched him in a train station. In the beginning, nobody knew what happened, but a year later, it was discovered that he had been killed by a fellow Cuban. Cubans are involved in other similar crimes,” he explains.
“Life here is hard, just like it is for any immigrant. You don’t know the language, you live with 15 or 20 people until you get on your feet (if you can) and you work 12 hours every day,” Darelys Valladares says. “Plus, winter is extremely hard.”
Is Russia a trampoline to the EU?
“Naive”, “Talk straight, you want to leave”, were some of the responses Dasniurka received when she asked in a Facebook group whether she could travel from Moscow to Madrid via train.
“Hello. I need some help. I’m traveling to Russia, but I want to visit some friends and relatives in Spain. I’ve been told I can travel from Russia to Spain by train. My question is: what document do I need to get a train ticket? Thank you everyone and I hope you can help me,” she wrote.
Her post received more than seventy comments. Some were insults, others explained how getting to Russia didn’t mean that you were in the European Union (EU), like many Cubans imagine.
“You can’t travel to the EU without a Schengen visa, and if you don’t have one, you either sit still in Russia or you’re deported back to Cuba. You can’t take the Trans-Siberian Railway to travel to Alaska either, these are just stories,” a user said.
Not all Cubans traveling to Russia buy merchandise or go to stay. Some believe they can then move to a third country upon arrival. Very few manage to do this, after embarking on journeys that could last months or even a year. Most of them resign themselves to living in Russia illegally or decide to return to Cuba.
Yordan Roque normally explains these issues to his fellow countrymen in groups of Cubans in Russia, or about to travel to Russia. He says he does this so that others don’t go through the same thing he did. “The thing that hit me the hardest was not having a fellow Cuban who was able to help me without an ulterior motive.”
Yordan was one of the lucky ones; he managed to get to Spain after more than three months of traveling. He was arrested on the Greek and Italian border. “I had some truly bitter experiences,” he remembers.
“There are people who believe that there’s a direct train, or that you can you can reach Alaska via the Diomede islands. These are all stories, scam artists’ tales,” he says. “The route I know is the one I took: Romania, Macedonia, Greece, Italy, France and Spain. Other people used to go via Poland to Germany, but these borders have been closed more and more.”
Yordan “almost lost his mind” during his trip. “When I reached Spain, I couldn’t even remember what it was I wanted there,” he remembers. “It’s a very difficult journey. If you manage to do it, it’s because you’re traveling alone and manage to slip away. People traveling in groups are a lot more visible.”
According to statistics from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 81 asylum applications had been made from Cubans in Greece, Finland and Macedonia, in mid-2020. There were 140 Cuban refugees in Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Serbia and Slovakia. All of these countries, neighboring Russia, form part of the routes that are normally tread by those who want to reach Italy, Germany or Spain.
Cubans scammed in Russia
Many scammers sweettalk Cubans traveling to Russia, with the promise of reaching the European Union.
Iscander Manuel knows this all too well, who is ashamed for having trusted – and paid – somebody who promised him a two-way ticket and the promise of work for himself and his mother. He hasn’t even been in Moscow a month, and he’s already desperately longing to return to Cuba.
“We don’t even have money to buy a return ticket home. When we arrived at the airport, we gave all of our money to the person who was supposed to arrange our accommodation and work arrangements. We never saw them again,” he says.
Iscander and his mother have managed to find seasonal work collecting roses. Poorly paid, without money to buy goods that would allow them to recover some of the investment once they return to Cuba, they are barely able to cover food expenses for both of them, and the rent.
“I asked for three months unpaid leave before leaving Cuba, and I hope I’m able to return in time to get my job back,” he explains.
He describes his room: there are several bunkbeds where other Cubans who have also been scammed sleep. “The luckier ones,” he explains. “Some people who flew over with us are now begging on the streets.”
In a WhatsApp voice message, another Cuban (who prefers to remain anonymous) reports those who scammed him. “Some guy called Mauricio, another one called Piolo and a couple dedicate themselves to bringing Cubans over and them scamming them. Cubans fall into the trap, desperate to leave Cuba.
Once here, they are picked up at the airport and shoved into a taxi and taken somewhere, or they are taken to a large store. Sometimes, they tell you there are no jobs available and then they disappear.” The vague details that characterize the con artists is a sign of how much inofrmation they have about them and the informal style of negotiations.
All of the victims agree that the language is what makes them the most vulnerable.
Warning about scam artists are common in social media groups. Some offer you a plane ticket, accommodation and work; others offer you a way to get to Spain or Italy. There are always victims that fall into their web of deceit, attracted by the favorable prices of plane tickets if they are bought in Russia.
“They promise you that they will buy you a round trip ticket for approximately 1500 USD, which includes four extra pieces of baggage on the journey back. The payment must be made here, once the traveler arrives in Moscow. The person who buys the ticket doesn’t send over a copy (as they should and can), but instead sends a list where the names of those who have signed up for this service appear. Without a traveler code, those who are about to fly have no way of knowing whether they have a two-way ticket or not,” Hector Miranda warned on Facebook
“These cases have become very common in recent days and there are many Cubans, mainly women, who have fallen victim to con artists that share their same nationality,” Miranda outlines.
In order to not fall victim to these scams, Cubans traveling to Russia should bear in mind some tips: always ask for all of the plane ticket information so they can check it online, ask for a photocopy of the ID of the person offering these services, make sure that the ticket includes a return flight, inform yourself about health measues and requirements at the border, equipment and journeys within the Russian Federation and European countries. You can also use search engines to look up flights between Russia and Cuba, and check prices on these.
“I have seen cases of people working an entire week or month, and then they aren’t paid, or they are paid less than what was agreed. They can’t file a complaint because they are there as illegal aliens,” Zulema warns. “It’s better to get a job in something that pays you at the end of the working day.
”Why are so many positive COVID-19 cases reaching Cuba from Russia?
Out of the 1644 imported cases of COVID-19 in May, 88% were detected in travelers coming from Russia. Out of these, 1406 were Cubans and there were only 42 Russians. The most COVID-positive cases have arrived from this European country, with infections abroad in recent months; before, they were tourists, now they are Cubans.
Last November, the Cuban government issued a statement to tour operators about the growing number of Russian nationals who reached the island sick. In the case of Cubans, the number of people who were infected upon their return are almost just as high that the Committee of Provincial Defense to restrict Cubans living in Santiago de Cuba “from entering and leaving high-risk countries especially Russia)” to once every trimester.
Dianela*, a psychologist from Holguin, is regretting it now because some of her patients are planning to leave again.
“There is no risk perception, or at least the motivation to go and buy is a lot stronger,” she speculates. “I have had patients who are still suffering symptoms of long COVID, and they are only thinking about returning to Moscow because they won’t get sick again for at least a few months. Others, including my fellow health professionals, don’t respect health regulations. I’ve seen it all.”
Dianela must visit patients who are being let out of hospital three times a week, alongside a multidisciplinary group. These people must remain in self-isolation until they have the second negative PCR test, which confirms they are able to leave.
Dianela confesses that she is “angry” that people get infected from being irresponsible. According to survey findings, some people did protect themselves, but others exposed themselves to the virus the entire time, because wearing masks in Moscow is not compulsory.
Yordan Roque agrees with her. He lived in Moscow for seven years, and travels there frequently for business.
He has a theory: “The problem of Cubans returning to Cuba with COVID-19 lies in accommodation. They rent out rooms with 6 or 7 bunkbeds, and this cramming is dangerous. Furthermore, these rental places aren’t very clean. Add to this the fact that wearing a mask is not compulsory in public spaces in Russia.”
In some videos posted on social media, you can see that wearing a mask is a requirement in the Lublino wholesale market… at least at the entrance. Then, people begin to relax and don’t continue to wear their mask.
Cubans aren’t the only ones with low-risk perception in Russia. While this country managed to create its own vaccine to tackle COVID-19 (Sputnik V) early on, in mid-June, only 10% of the population have been vaccinated. The media have reported that some people are rejecting the vaccine. Vaccine centers at hospitals, doctor offices, shopping malls and even restaurants, remain pretty much empty.
Different clinics in Russia carry out a PCR test for 2500 rubles (35 USD). The negative result of this test is necessary to enter Cuba. However, this isn’t the only expense.
Since June 5th, the Cuban government has been charging hotel accommodation in USD to Cubans who return at any airport, except for Havana and Santiago de Cuba. Many of the cheaper flights are to and from Varadero where obligatory seven-night “packages” include breakfast, lunch and dinner, and cost at least 300 USD.
*Dianela is a false name the interviewee requested for privacy reasons.