HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 20 — I live in a neighborhood of Cubans, one which seemed like a tranquil place. However I realized I’m surrounded by “deserters” – the man who worked for Cubana Airlines, a love-struck doctor, our dentist, a boxing champion and half a volleyball squad.
I even have a neighbor who —for five years— hasn’t been allowed to visit her country. Her crime was having “deserted” Cuba during a trip to Spain. She wasn’t a soldier or an official. She wasn’t even athlete or a doctor. She was simply a member of a group of domino players.
This aroused my curiosity, so I looked up the definition of “deserter” in a few dictionaries. All of them concur that this involves a “soldier who abandons their post without permission.” Undoubtedly this is interpreted differently in Cuba, because none of these neighbors were soldiers.
However, Cuban immigration regulations go well beyond punishing the “guilty.” In 2007 a youth requested an exit permit from the all-powerful Immigration Office, but they denied it flatly, claiming his father was a “deserter.”
The madness was absolute. The father and son had not lived together for 18 years, and for 10 of those they hadn’t seen each other. What’s more, the son didn’t even know his father had left the country. Finally, the family confirmed that his father had remained abroad when repairing a ship.
The immigration authorities were categorical. As punishment for what the father had done, they were refusing to grant the son permission to leave for five years. I myself spoke with an official and insisted that such a measure seems neither just nor legal.
The immigration official was not bothered with responding. They don’t need to. They know they hold all power over an emigrant’s destiny. Meanwhile, the political officials couldn’t find a justification to defend a directive that punished an offender’s relatives.
The reality is that no one understands with exactitude what their rights are, and it doesn’t cross the mind of any Cuban to argue over a regulation of the Immigration Office. If they’re not given permission, they go home, wait a while, and try again later.
Everyone knows it would be exceptionally difficult to find a lawyer willing to take on a case against that agency (they would have to be a lawyer who doesn’t like to travel). Moreover, in the event of winning, it would be even more complicated to get a court to enforce the ruling.
There are also other factors to keep in mind, such as the existence of un-publicized regulations. In a heated discussion, two migration officials told me they couldn’t explain some things to me because there exist “secret regulations” that only they know.
Consequently, they can appeal to these secrets every time they consider it necessary, without the citizen knowing if they in fact do or don’t have rights. In this way, all that’s left for us is to rely on the honesty and legal affinity of such military government employees.
What’s saddest is that not all of them are trustworthy. In one of the immigration offices (popularly known as the “Wolves’ Cave”) it turns out that almost all obstacles they can be overcome…if the hurdles aren’t too big or political – less than $1,000 (USD) is enough.
I spoke with one of those “wolves”—now retired but retaining good contacts— who explained that the most common problems have to do with the “Carta de Liberación” (Letter “liberating” persons from their work place) or the “Baja de las Fuerzas Armadas” (Being dropped from the ranks of the Armed Forces), but she added that “almost everything has a solution.”
I have no doubt that the great majority of officials are honest people; but what happens when a citizen runs into one of the other ones? How can they defend their rights and fulfill their obligations when some of these are kept secret?
A while back it was announced that a new immigration law had been written, but the months passed —turning into years— and Cubans still have not regained their right to travel outside the country without having to request and pay for the government’s permission.
Perhaps, based on this blog post, my exit permits will begin to “run into obstacles” (it wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve had difficulties of this type). However, it’s worth the trouble to write about this situation, because to remain silent only serves to let the “wolves” fatten themselves in peace.
Havana Times translation from the Spanish original published on Feb. 18. Reprinted with permission of BBC Mundo.