Cuba’s Deserters

Fernando Ravsberg

Playing dominoes in Havana.

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.

5 thoughts on “Cuba’s Deserters

  • I am new to this but what I read coincides with many conversations I have had with Cubans on my last trip there. While there I met the man of my dreams. All my life I have searched for someone good honest and loving. He like me sets goals for himself and works hard to attain a better life for himself no matter who pushes him down. I have fallen for this man and am seriously thinking of marrying him. I don’t know what kind of adventure I am embarking but I feel up to the challenge to be right by his side through it all. Is this too crazy to think can be done? Should I not lose faith? What if there is a child involved? Will there be leniency to our plight?

  • Hola mi amigo. I am a Canadian woman married to a Cuban National. I have been in the process of applying to have my husband immigrate to Canada for well over a year. His application was approved by the Canadian Government after my husband attended an in person interview at the Canadian Embassy in Havana on March 1, 2010. On that day he walked out of the embassy with his passport and his Pernament Resident Card for Canda. He had already stopped working (as a teacher) prior to his interview. He had a letter releasing him from his duties from the director of his school. He has been waiting physically in front of the office of education for the province of Granma in Bayamo for more than 2 weeks for his Liberation Letter and has still not received it. Of course he can not get his exit visa without it. We hired a lawyer which so far has not helped. I am at a loss as to what to do to get him here to Canada. I thought that getting the Perm Resident card was the end of it – obviously n

  • And to Milagros Garcia I say that you do not seem to have embraced the American Dream at all, with your monthly trips to Cuba. You treat the USA as some kind of suburb to your true Home in Cuba, to which you commute for your own convenience. You should be aware that many Native born American citizens consider your actions disrespectful of the Nation that gave you refuge and asylum, and look to return to the Bush doctrine concerning trips to Cuba by those such as yourself, as well as a return to limited remittances. Why reward the Socialist Masters with hard earned dollars? If you had the courage to not do this then the chances of meaningful change in Cuba would have a better chance of occurring. The Irony of Fidel/Raul dependant on remisas from the Imperial Empire and the hated Capitalists is too rich to be believed! This flow of funds to Cuba by expats needs to be curbed.

  • Good article, except for the Fiction that it is only a few Immigration officials who are subverting the system for personal gain. It ia actually endemic in the whole Department. This is a corrupt and unfeeling group that need s to be swept from positions of responsibility and replaced en masse. And when the New group learns how to manipulate the system, as they will, then throw them out as well. But all this comes from the Top, with hidden, “secret” regulations that the average Cuban Citizen cannot hope to thwart or circumvent, or even know what they are. Shame on Cuba!

  • One thing that i can say is..Although i travel to Cuba monthly. (and twice a yr before the restrictions were moved).i am pleased that for more than 40 yrs i and my family have been proud to call ourselves Cuban, Even though many migrated out in order to assist those who were unable or unwilling to leave home..For the Garcia Villami faml HOME is not only where one sleeps or hangs our hats..Its the land of our birth and the country my family and so many others fought and died to make free.

    2day, i am here in Cuba and after spending 2 mths in Haiti helping Cubans as well as Haitians..i overstand why i will never cease to believe that transformation is still possible. However it cannot be done if the people all decide that its better to live elsewhere?
    And one thing that i can attest to ..the yards are not greener in amerikkka and freedom, cars, homes, and the social processes are not as easy to achieve as some may think..
    In this regards i say to all..Come/leave at your risk!

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