By Rosa Martinez
HAVANA TIMES — If we could get an exact picture of the number of Cubans leaving the country to reside abroad, we would probably be able to conclude, without fear of contradiction, that the island is slowly bleeding to death. Young people, those who ought to be the nation’s future, are leaving us.
On October 19, it was reported that 139 Cubans (88 men and 51 women) had been detained in Guatemala without papers and expelled from the Central American country. Movilidad Humana, an organization devoted to the protection of immigrants, reported that more than 350 Cubans arrived at the southern border of the state of Chiapas, Mexico, and that some 200 people from the island arrive there on a daily basis.
In 2013 alone, 2,129 Cubans attempted to reach the United States illegally by sea. This figure includes those who managed to reach land, were intercepted in the high seas and repatriated and those who died during the journey.
According to the US Coast Guard, the figure rose to 3,722 the following year. As of October 1 this year, which closed the 2015 US fiscal year, and in the midst of the “updating” of Cuba’s socialist economic model, the number rose to 4,462, more than double the figure reported a mere 2 years ago.
These numbers do not of course include the many thousands of Cubans who traveled legally to Ecuador and then undertook a dangerous journey across several nations to set foot on the land of freedom, nor do they take into account the athletes, artists, medical doctors and scientists who “deserted” while working abroad, offering lectures or quite simply pursing studies somewhere. There is also no mention of the hundreds or thousands who traveled to other countries on invitations from friends, as tourists or to reunite with their spouses in other corners of the globe, to never return.
Notwithstanding the fact that immigration is something we see across the globe, the increase in the number of Cubans who are risking everything to leave their country and reach the United States is truly terrifying. This increase is quite simply owed to the fact Cubans fear what no few Florida politicians have predicted will come to pass, the modification or definitive elimination of the Cuban Adjustment Act, which offers many benefits to Cubans who manage to set foot on US soil.
In addition to this understandable concern, there are many other reasons that make Cubans emigrate (chiefly to the United States), despite the reforms and updating of the Cuban economic model – and reconciliation with the Yanks – now underway.
Havana Times conversed with a number of residents of Guantanamo to hear their opinion on the matter
The first person we spoke with was Candita, a 73-year-old woman who has the misfortune to be practically without any family, since her two older sons went to the USA almost 20 years ago with the help of her two brothers that were already there. Little by little they managed to bring to the US her other children and almost all the grandchildren.
“My two older brothers were the first to leave, for political reasons. They never saw eye to eye with the government and, after the first 15 years of the revolution, they made every effort to leave the country, until they did. A long time later, they sponsored one of my kids, and another son of mine married a girl who got her US residency in the lottery. As of that point, practically everyone I love began leaving, until the house was empty. It’s a big house with every comfort you could ask for, but it’s empty.”
“My brothers are the only ones who hate everything having to do with the revolution and its “rabble”, as they say. My kids left the country because life’s too tough in Cuba. That was in the middle of the Special Period crisis of the 1990s. The grandchildren left because, well, they wanted to be with their parents, naturally.”
Not all stories are as simple as Candita’s. There are stories people find more difficult to share, having to do with political persecution and harassment, the kinds of stories told by prisoners of conscience who have been obliged to leave their home country, denied the right to criticize or pass judgment on the things they believed to be ill-conceived. Those who did lost all peace in their lives.
This is what happened to Alberto, a mechanical engineer who claims that the main reason Cubans emigrate is politics. According to him, disagreeing with a government that has been in power for more than 50 years (more than any other dictator, he claims) is a political issue. The fact the State hasn’t been able to meet the basic needs of the population in over half a century, the fact people still don’t have Internet access this late in the game and that the average Cuban still finds it next to impossible to travel abroad or around the country is also a political issue, he adds.
Yamila, a third-year medical student, tells us something different. “No one in my family has left Cuba. I don’t think it’s because we’re very patriotic or anything like that, we just haven’t had the opportunity. How could we hope to travel anywhere, poor black folk that we are? I’m going to stay wherever I get a work contract abroad, even Haiti. My parents know this and respect that decision. Are they upset about it? Of course, plenty, but no one’s going to stop me. We’re close as a family, too close, I would say, we stick together through good and bad times, but we have a lot of financial problems, and my dream is to be able to change that, at least a bit.”
The young woman adds: “I think other young people feel the same way. They don’t want to spend the rest of their lives earning a measly salary that isn’t even enough to buy food. They don’t want to spend years waiting to get the latest clothes in fashion or enjoy what they want to enjoy. We want to be able to do this while we’re still young. Will we help our parents? Of course, they had to deal with the toughest years of the revolution and have made many sacrifices for us.”
“Our generation,” a 43-year-old university professor says, “was hit by the Special Period head on and survived. It got used to shortages, to not having this or that, to all kinds of obstacles, to not having even the most basic things at home, at work or on the street. We’ve put up with this all these years in the hopes the situation would one day improve, but it never did.”
“But the generation that came after is different. They don’t want to wait to see the improvement we’ve been waiting for patiently. They’re also not afraid to try their luck somewhere. They would rather work hard in a place they don’t know, they would rather risk being eaten by a shark or who knows what, than continue living in a country where no one understands or listens to them.”
Rafael, a self-employed driver, believes there are several reasons that lead Cubans to leave the country. The main one is financial. Despite the changes that have taken place in society over the last five or seven years, people continue to have the same problems: salaries aren’t enough to live on for 90 percent of population. The youngest have no way to move out of home, where three or more generations live together. Transportation continues to be a major problem. Though no one can speak of the kinds of famines seen in other poor countries, putting a good meal on the table is a real headache. The prices of all basic products continue to rise. There are very few recreational options for the young, and the few out there are far too expensive. Those are some of the difficulties that make Cuban society dysfunctional, at least for the average citizen.
For Olaidis Reve, a retired veterinarian, the country’s malfunctioning economy is the main reason behind the exodus of Cubans, though the political side to the story cannot be neglected. Cuba is not the only country where one can go to prison for opposing the government, but it is among the few where thinking differently than the majority is considered a sin.
“Since before the triumph of the Revolution,” she says, “the United States has been the chief destination for Cubans. Before 1959, people would leave Cuba to study at a prestigious university or avoid political persecution, or to get away from the chaos that has befallen the country. It’s no different now.”
“Cubans continue to flee from the social system that made them dream about the ideals and aspirations Fidel proclaimed, and the political effervescence of the 70s and 80s. During the 90s, that enthusiasm went to hell. Fidel has one foot in the grave and Cuba has changed, but, in essence, it is still the same.”
“The United States, which was once the enemy and is today a good neighbor, continues to be people’s first choice. Why?” I ask her.
“It’s only natural. First, because it’s the most powerful country in the world, with one of the best economies. Second, because it’s nearby, so much so that you can get there on a raft or a surfboard. Third, because there’s no other country that offers Cubans so many benefits (through the Cuban Adjustment Act). And people should hurry! Because, when they take away that law, we’ll be as screwed up there as we are here!”