HAVANA TIMES – I just finished listening to “Solo le pido a Dios” [I only ask one thing of God] by Leon Gieco. The last time I remember listening to this song was in Cuba. In some ways, I had everything in my country: the house where I was born, a job with an acceptable salary for living in Cuba, and on occasion, free time to share with my friends. And yet, I had to leave. The political persecution I suffered for exercising my vocation was unsustainable, despite the other advantages. I returned to that song by Gieco today, not so much out of nostalgia as to remember that phrase where the Argentine singer – accompanied by Mercedes Soza – asks God: “[don’t let] the future leave me indifferent,” and ends the verse singing: “Unhappy is the one who must march off / to live a different culture.”
I’ve now been out of Cuba for a little over a year. Reinventing myself has been a way to continue doing journalism, and journalism has allowed me to understand this new reality. I seek out the stories of others in order to understand my own, and to find tips that come from the strength of other migrants. No matter what country they’re from, but especially for us Cubans who are scattered across the world and in constant rebirth.
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I was nine or ten the first time I said a sad goodbye to a friend. David was a few years older than I. He was going to the United States with his family. David was one of the few friends I had, and his departure left me with a lot of strong feelings. Siomara, his grandmother, stayed behind – she couldn’t go, because she still had her mother, who was quite elderly. As soon as the older woman died, Siomara, who was president of the CDR [“Committee for the Defense of the Revolution,” a government-allied neighborhood organization], left as well. I never knew anything more about David, and I can’t look for him on social media, because I don’t remember his last names.
A year later, my mother left for Spain, for family reasons. She thought it was for a short time, so she didn’t even resign from her job. Another person surely took her place a few months later. Once you leave and discover the world, adapting to the island again is nearly impossible. I was eleven when that happened. Maybe it’s because of that early separation that we now get along better on WhatsApp and with an ocean between us.
Later, another David left – this one was like an older brother to me. He left after marrying a Spanish girl he met at one of Havana’s Bohemian nights. He was never again able to go back and see Lourdes, his mother, who stayed on the island and died – from pneumonia they said, but I believe it was from sadness and loneliness. In his case, I know more; we shared time together when he was able to visit Cuba, and afterwards he took me in, when I had to leave the island and arrived in Miami.
During my adolescence, friends, family members and acquaintances continued leaving: for Miami, Spain, Italy, Argentina, or any corner of the planet where you breathe more freely and there are more life opportunities.
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In the past sixty years, the migrant exodus has led hundreds of thousands of Cubans into exile, from different ideologies and generations. Families have been divided; some only geographically, while for others it’s meant the end of the emotional ties. Those who opposed the Revolution have left, along with others who supported the Revolution. Directly or indirectly, all of them leave fleeing the island’s poverty and lack of opportunities. According to data published by the BBC, “between 1959 and 1962, 250,000 Cuban ex-patriots were counted. The so-called ‘freedom flights’ relocated another 264,000 Cubans between 1965 and 1973. In 1980, it’s estimated that nearly 125,000 left from the port of Mariel, heading for the United States.”
In 1994, following the fall of the Soviet Union and the socialist camp and amid the economic crisis that Fidel Castro coined the “Special Period,” approximately 35,000 Cubans fled by sea with the aim of arriving in Florida, during what became known as the Cuban rafter crisis. The number of people who perished on that journey is still unknown.
None of the previous totals has surpassed the migratory wave of the last two years via the Nicaragua route. It’s speculated that Daniel Ortega opened this route in collusion with the regime of Miguel Diaz-Canel, as an escape valve for Cubans who are living through the greatest economic and health crisis of the island’s recent history. Cubans pay coyotes between US $8,000 and $15,000 dollars to get them to the Mexican side of the US border. There are those who pass comfortably through the different countries, but there are also those who are robbed, assaulted, kidnapped, threatened, or even killed.
It’s estimated that from January to December 2022, 313,488 Cubans arrived at the US border. However, that same journey in search of a new beginning, in a society that offers more opportunity, has cut short the lives of hundreds of Cubans. According to a special El Toque report: “To migrate: a life or death decision,” from 2014 to the present, at least 232 Cubans have lost their lives while attempting to reach the United States across land borders, or by attempting to cross the sea in primitive boats. In addition, the journalistic investigation registered 627 missing persons (where there’s been no news of their arrival in the US, but nobody has been found either to confirm their death). In some cases, they could be in detention centers, but in others, the worst is feared.
The humanitarian parole program the Biden Administration established at the beginning of January 2023 has sought to promote safer migration for Cubans, Venezuelans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans. The program stipulates that these migrants must be backed by a US resident who can assume all expenses. However, at the same time, the measure shuts off passage through the borders. Up to now, the humanitarian parole measure has benefitted 52,053 Cubans, according to the US Department of Homeland Security. Yet even as I write, I have friends who have set out to cross Central America in order to reach the Mexican side and ask for an appointment with US immigration through the CPB One app, which allows asylum seekers to enter the US safely and legally.
The United States tops the list of countries that Cuban citizens aspire to settle in, due to the immigration advantages it affords. However, Spain has also sheltered thousands of Cubans who have applied through the laws of Historic Memory and Democratic Memory there. According to data from Spain’s National Statistics Institute, 176,000 Cubans were living in that country at the close of 2022. The same source reveals that at the beginning of that year, 158,960 Cubans already possessed Spanish nationality, making Cuba the sixth country with the most nationalized Spanish citizens.
After the Spanish Parliament approved the Ley de Memoria Democratica [Democratic Memory Law], the number of new Spanish citizens from the island has risen to 160,833, a 1.2% increase. And there are plenty more to come, since every Cuban who imagines they had a Spanish grandparent is seeking a way of finding these documents, a convoluted puzzle, in order to have an escape route that way. They leave behind homes, life-long careers – none of them worth more to them than their aspirations for freedom.
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Many people on the island have the false conception that outside, everything will be resolved; that leaving is the solution to all their problems. They never realize that migration brings its own problems, changes in customs and the weight of beginning all over again in societies Cubans know nothing about. The responsibility lies in part with the Cuban emigres themselves, who often don’t tell their family members about the vicissitudes they face in trying to get their heads above water outside the country: the long waits to obtain a legal status that allows them to work legally; the times they were nearly thrown out onto the street because they didn’t have money for rent; or when they slept in their cars, grateful that they at least had one.
Many return with some money in their pockets to have a good time with their family and friends, and, really, it’s not worth the trouble to go into details about how they managed to get the money. But the reality is that when you leave, you face a change in your life, customs, culture, that forces us to reformat our minds and install new programs of knowledge to adapt to the real world.
A woman friend who’s in Spain on a post-graduate study grant that allowed her to come with her husband and daughter, told me that the forms of stress have merely changed. There’s more food, internet, and transportation, but the worries don’t disappear, they’re merely transformed. At the end of every month, the bills for rent and everything else that can’t be avoided pile up. There are also clashes with the true faces of those who as tourists in Cuba seemed so pleasant and warm. You discover that they’re human beings like everyone else. There are excellent people, but racists and extreme xenophobes also abound.
The stories of Cuban migrants, and how they managed to lift themselves up and get ahead could keep large numbers of journalists, sociologists and researchers busy for a long time. Stories that will continue to increase pitilessly, as long as Cuba remains a poor country under a dictatorship that won’t let those born there prosper in their own land. They’re the stories of others, that reflect, in part, my own. Although we try to detach ourselves, Cuba follows us, uniting those of us with similar problems, within or without. Getting ahead and helping our own is the common goal, the common obsession, I might say. For Gieco, the forced migration is a misfortune, but for others, it’s a privilege. It comes to the same thing – what’s left to us is to face up to it and hope the blessing doesn’t pass us by.