So Why Didn’t You Stay?

Yusimi Rodriguez

Malecon seawall in Manzanillo, Granma. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, March 26 – Carlos married an English woman in 2003, but he didn’t travel immediately to England.  First he went to his native province in the east of the country to visit to his family.

There he met a young woman with whom he could have shared the rest of his life if he had met her earlier, but he was already a married man and his future seemed decided.  So finally he traveled to his wife’s country.

“When you leave Cuba, they give you a white rectangular card (carte blanca), which on it is written, “Keep this until you return to the country.  You must exhibit it, along with your emigration permit, to the immigration official, who is the last person you will see before boarding the airplane,” Carlos explained to me.

But what for many Cubans is a fairytale (marrying a foreigner and emigrating, preferably to a country in the First World), didn’t have the happy ending of living happily ever after.  Carlos and his new wife differed over many things, among them the fact that he would someday return to Cuba.

After a few months living in London, Carlos telephoned Clari, the woman he had met during the visit to his family.  The truth is that he had called her on other occasions – many occasions to be frank.  But what was different from those other times, when they conversed and he played songs by Ricardo Arjona in the background, was that this time he asked her if she would marry him if he returned to Cuba.

Four and a half months after leaving his country, Carlos returned to Havana’s international airport, and the first person he ran into was an immigration official.

“That’s the procedure,” Carlos explained to me. “You have to show them the carta blanca (if it’s been lost you have to pay 150 CUCs to get a new one and be able to present it).  Then you go to customs.  They don’t allow any margin of error.”

Both those who emigrate and those who stay miss their family members.

But apparently errors always find a tiny crack to sneak in.  Or, perhaps, what happens is that people who hold highly responsible positions in the country could never conceive that a person leaving here under the conditions that Carlos did would ever want to return.

The fact is that the Office of Immigration communicated to the OFICODA [the government rationing office] that food from the ration book should not be made available to Carlos’ family because he had remained in London as an emigrant.

Physical presence vs. bureaucratic logic

This is what they could have concluded if Carlos had not returned after having stayed the permitted eleven months outside of the country, but he was back here before five had past.  This means, even when he had the most overwhelming proof —his physical presence— that he had not “abandoned” the country, Carlos was kicked out of the food rationing program for six months.

He decided to go to the Office of Immigration to present what had happened to him.  There, he spoke with a lieutenant colonel.

“Who’s going to reimburse me for these six months without a ration book, in that I’m a Cuban citizen residing in the country?, Carlos asked.

“These are the errors on which the Revolution is built,” was the answer he received from the official.

“It’s a shame that those errors are made with those of us who want to stay here,” Carlos responded, exhibiting the Permission for Residence Abroad document he had received during his stay in London.  It demonstrated that he had the option of staying in London even though he had separated from his wife.

This is a man who has a good command of English, in addition to Portuguese and Italian.  He studied law and graduated, though he never received his degree because he didn’t complete the subsequent two-year social service requirement.

Bici-Taxi in Havana. Photo: Caridad

He’s not a person who’ afraid of work: When he returned to the capital from his province, he worked as a bicycle-taxi driver, in construction, washing cars at hotels, as an English teacher in a school, worked again in construction and finally in the district attorney’s office once he completed his law program.  At the time all this happened to him, he was only thirty years old.

“So why didn’t you stay?” the official asked him (I admit I wouldn’t have been able to resist asking the same thing myself).

“Because I have my family here; my aunt who raised me is now 74, and I have a debt of gratitude with her that will last a lifetime.  When you’re abroad you miss your family, but your family also misses you.  But I was also born here and I want to die in this country.  I’m proud of being Cuban.”

I won’t deny my astonishment, but his reasons inspired respect in me.  In terms of the lieutenant’s colonel reaction, this was limited to telling him, “Congratulations” and then turning his back on Carlos.

Some people told him he was an imbecile for returning, and much more for staying, given he had the opportunity he had to leave.  He married Clari and they built their house together, where they now live.

When I say that they built it together, I mean she carried sacks of cement just like he did.  It’s one of the things that he admires most about her.

Now Carlos is back to suffering the daily problems of any Cuban, but contrary to many who  prefer to grumble at bus stops and in lines, he prefers to voice his concerns to his representatives at the neighborhood report-back assemblies, as is his right.  (I hope to speak about that another time).