Vicente Morín Aguado

Leo (c) with other Cubans.

HAVANA TIMES — Leonel Ramos Castillo is asking himself whether he left Ithaca or Troy. While Odysseus sailed a thousand kilometers down the Aegeus on his way home, this Cuban traversed six times this distance, crossing the whole of Central America to reach the far-off destination of Austin, Texas.

“I left Havana on June 2, headed for Quito, Eucador with US $1,800 in my pocket, confident I would succeed and knowing this was my last chance. It was my third attempt, and the third time’s the charm.”

The story is long, involving Polyphemus and sirens, a trip with no shortage of vessels, a voyage with even the occasional horse concealing people inside.

“In Quito, a Cuban friend introduced me to two couples (also from Cuba) who were ready to undertake the same adventure. They were paying 1,700 for the trip to Panama, which was apparently safe. It’s a lot of money, I thought, so I decided to accompany them to the border and go my own way.”

“It was an 8-hour-long journey down a dangerous, winding mountain road. You had to decompress, just like on a plane, and all to the sounds of vendors offering everything from dried meats to fruit. I bought two bags of mandarins, as I didn’t want to eat a lot, because of the altitude. The closer we got to Colombia, the greater the sense of going into the unknown.”

Tulcan marks the boundary between the two countries. Leo did not know he was at an altitude one and a half times higher than that of Cuba’s tallest peak, the Turquino. There were still 8 kilometers left until Ipiales, 1,500 kilometers of a downhill journey towards the sea, with stations at Cali and Medellin. They were hoping to reach a point close to Panama, on the Caribbean coast of Uraba.

“A man offered to take me across the border for only 30 dollars, and I accepted. We arrived at Ipiales in the early morning. He found me a hotel and offered me some advice: ‘Cubans speak too quickly. Try and speak the least bit possible, and, when you do, imitate a Colombian accent. At every police check point, you’ll be asked to pay at least 100 dollars. You’re a goldmine, because of all the money you pay to the police, immigration officials and anyone who wears a uniform.”

Without wiping off the dust from the road, he hid the bulk of the money inside a condom and placed it inside a tube of deodorant kept at hand. The rest would be used for “payoffs,” that is, whatever he needed to hand over to the greedy uniformed fellows along the way.

“There was one check point after the other, making the trip longer and longer. We travelled inside a small bus, much like those micro-buses run by transportation cooperatives in Havana. Though I sat at the back, on purpose, they managed to catch me. I had a transit visa, but that didn’t matter: ‘Sir, you have to pay your dues, it’ll be 200.’ I haggled, unsuccessfully. They found the “payoff” money when they saw the small wallet peeking out of my trunks. I calculate that, between several passengers and control points, the police ended up “retaining” a thousand and some dollars.

“We arrived in Cali at 6:45 pm, exhausted from the trip and check point stops. I was wearing the same clothes I’d left Cuba with: a long-sleeved shirt and pointy dress shoes. I looked like a local, not like a person amid the long journey I was on. Salsa music flooded the whole terminal. I bought the ticket to Medellin and had a few mandarins and the free coffee at the station for a meal.”

The hundreds of kilometers ahead would bring new experiences. Now, the bus driver offered to hide the Cuban in his stall for 40 dollars, which would prove far cheaper than the forced “contributions” to the many border guards they would come across in a war-torn country.

“The driver introduced me to a dark-skinned man from Sagua de Tanamo, who became an unvoluntary travel companion from that point on.”

Leo on one of the many buses he took during his journey north.

They skirted a number of control points until reaching the picturesque, Caribbean city, where the bus made a deliberate stop on the road, to scrape the pockets of each of the migrants, as is customary.

“We were taken in by one of the many dark-complected families that abound here. They took us all in, and I speak in the plural because I counted as many as 20 Cubans waiting for the contacts to take them to Turbo, where the speedboats awaited.”

Food, lodging and anywhere from $200 to 250 for the speedboat, per person, came up to 700 in total. The hard part was waiting ten days, almost locked up. The eldest of the family said to them, as words of welcome:

“As of now, you’re my responsibility and I can’t mess up, otherwise they’ll have my neck. You get deported, but we get floored, because we’re using a corridor used for drug smuggling and dealing with very powerful people. But, relax, everything will work out fine…”

“One day, I woke up feeling worried and wanting to speak with my family. The father of the family took me to Belen, in Medellin. I didn’t see that many police officers, thankfully, but I was only able to speak with my wife for two minutes. Calling Cuba was expensive and I noticed the phone had all of the country codes except the one for Cuba. At night, the young man in the house made me a proposition: “I can help you if you go back to Ecuador and bring me at least ten Cubans. I’ll cross you for free.” I replied: “there’s no chance in hell I’m going back.”

The pressure had built up and they decided to head out, as promised. Again, they boarded a small bus, striking a deal with the driver. They now headed to Turbo, a small town next to the gulf of Uraba, the maritime passage connecting the country to Panama.

“We managed to go through several of the blasted check points, but they got me in the end, while Sagua managed to remain hidden. I get off, they do a complete check, taking off my belt and shoes. The bus leaves. To my surprise, the chief of police exclaims: ‘Sir, you’ve got everything in order, you had no reason to hide. Look, get on and we’ll drop you off at the next station. One thing, though, I don’t recommend you go to Turbo, it’s too dangerous. Go straight to Necocli instead.”

Necocli is a spa town, quieter and more touristic, that’s also near the border. There, he would try and find a speedboat.

“I was about to accomplish my dream, the destination I had set when I left Quito 16 days prior. I had no way of imagining the tragedies that awaited me in the coming hours.”

To be continued…

Vicente Morín Aguado: [email protected]


11 thoughts on “A Cuban’s Odyssey: Part I: Sixteen Days in Colombia

  • Yes and no. It has limited access to credit, which in turn has limited it’s ability to purchase certain goods. However the situation is much more complicated than that. Shortages, of all types, including food, is mostly due to systemic inefficiencies inherent in a communist style command economy. Thus when produce rots at the farm for lack of transportation, that is not due to the embargo. Likewise the scarcity of milk and beef in Cuba is not a function of the embargo, but is instead a byproduct of communist central planning.

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