Cuba’s Burnt Bridges

Fernando Ravsberg

Cojimar in the Cuban capital. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, March 3 — To emigrate is a painful process in general, but in the case of Cubans it also means taking a trip with no return.  As if they’ve committed a serious crime, the State robs them of all their belongings.

It doesn’t matter that these were legally acquired goods; everything will be confiscated, from one’s house and car to even the furniture.  If you refuse to turn them over, you will not receive your “Permiso de Salida” (Exit Permit) from the all powerful Office of Immigration.

Therefore, there’s no remedy other than “going through the hoops” and giving them everything the family was able to accumulate over a working life.  The inspectors swoop down like birds of prey in search of whatever can be taken – one part for the State, the rest for themselves.

No one escapes, not even children.  From the grandmother of a 13-year-old teenager who traveled to meet his mother, they demanded all of the titles of the home appliances, looking for anything in the name of the boy in order to confiscate it.

A good friend —very revolutionary— who emigrated for family reunification, explained to me indignantly how they snatched everything from her.  She had to give them the automobile that the family had bought with a thousand sacrifices, as well as the television, refrigerator and even their home.

When the inspection was completed, they sealed off the apartment and left her and her daughter standing in the street waiting for the airplane to take off… three days later.  The corruption is so miserable that, in front of their eyes, an inspector removed the door lock and hid it in her handbag.

I spoke about this issue with an intellectual who had been forced to pay for his own house after his parents left to live in Miami.  They hid behind a strange “law” that ignored the fact that the house had already been purchased and that he had always lived there.

I will explain it slowly for non-Cubans.  When someone emigrates and is recorded on the title of a family home, those who remain in the property must re-purchase it from the State, even if it had been previously paid off.  It is a well thought-out policy of punishment…against those who choose to stay.

This intellectual didn’t want to yield, but they explained to him —politely— that if he didn’t make the payments they would never put the property in his name, which would make him run the risk of losing the property to some corrupt official who might take the listing out of the housing inventory so as to traffic it on the black market.

Of course the Cuban public is astute and has learned how to deal with the “paternalistic State,” which flies into rage every time one of its children leaves home.  The inspectors immediately collect the remains of what cannot be given away or sold.

Months and even years ago, those who are leaving would indicate a nominal new “resident” of the house, which could be legalized by faked marriages and “proof” of family relationships. This person would still have to re-purchase the house, but generally it was not possible for the State to remove them.

When someone is forced to give up their property to the State, automobiles lose all of their “sellable” parts before being turned over, the Japanese television is changed for a Russian black and white one, the Korean refrigerator for a Chinese one, the air conditioning unit disappears and the hole is sealed without leaving a mark. Even the mattresses vanish.

Undoubtedly this is noticed, but no one can prove it.  Moreover, it’s sufficient to allow the inspectors to steal the spoils (a lock or a pair of hinges) for them to sign the OK so the family can leave the country.  But all that is just a small act of revenge by the people.

In any case, it’s a bitter hour.  When they seal the entrance of the person’s home, it’s as if they have “burnt their bridges,” impeding any return. At this point, nothing material is left on Cuban soil, not even the possibility of return, because they’ll never again be allowed to reside in the country.

In fact to say “never again” is inexact.  This “law” stipulates a single macabre exception: it respects property rights over vaults at the cemetery.  The reason is simple, after dying those who have emigrated recover their right to return, to be buried in the earth of their homeland.

An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.