Why Cuban Travelers Are So Vulnerable

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*

The bearer of Cuban passport receives “special” treatment.

HAVANA TIMES — Following the publication of an article on three Cuban intellectuals who had been denied visas to enter the United States and participate at a congress of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) held in Washington, I was bombarded with attacks, attacks which, as is often the case, came from both anti and pro-Cuba extremists.

One of the people who commented on the piece – on the “pro” side – pummeled me verbally for writing that “(…) to travel around the world with a Cuban passport, today, means situating oneself at the lowest rung of the migratory food chain.”

He accused me of being tendentious, pointing out that I compulsively “look down on Cubans who live on the island”, and concluding that I am a despicable person with no future ahead of me. Though I have, to be sure, survived less generous predictions, I will humbly assume that, if my acrimonious antagonist misinterpreted my remarks, it is because I was unable to explain my points clearly.

To grasp the core of my argument, we must first of all distinguish between an immigrant living abroad and a mere traveler. It is a next to unquestionable fact that Cuban migrants become successful individuals once they reach their final, or near-final, destination.

These immigrants are, for the most part, individuals of ideal working age who have a solid educational background, something which allows them easier access to the new society and to take fuller advantage of the opportunities for social mobility found therein.

I can’t think of another transnational community which shows such a pronounced disparity between those who reside in their country of origin and those who live abroad, and this, of course, speaks of the skills and determination of Cubans in general.

It is worth mentioning that the educational advantage Cuban migrants have stems from specific historical developments and, in recent decades, from the strengths of Cuba’s educational programs.

When I spoke of the vulnerability of Cuban migrants, however, I was not referring to Cubans who have already settled somewhere – be it Florida or elsewhere – but, rather, to the Cuban-from-Cuba who has to travel, get on planes, go through airports and request visas, and do all this using his or her ocean-blue Cuban passport. For many different reasons, some of which I will delve into below, this Cuban-from-Cuba is indeed a vulnerable individual.

The first reason is that the frustration and crushing of people’s expectations in Cuba has transformed the desire to travel or emigrate into an aspiration that is so widespread it is sometimes frightening. You’d be hard pressed to find someone in Cuba who doesn’t hope to emigrate, or whose son, or grandson, doesn’t. It’s something like a national malady caused by the evident contrast between the relative prosperity of those who left the country and the boredom of those who are stuck on the island.

I should add that, for the last fifty years or so, Cubans, even those who are simple travelers, have been regarded as “persons of interest”. At the beginning, this was because they were considered agents of international communism, something which entailed much discomfort but had a nice, epic ring to it.

Today, they are seen simply as possible illegal immigrants, such that, when a human being holding a Cuban passport goes through any airport, they draw the undivided attention of its immigration officials.

The rabid nationalism of the Cuban leadership has not only been incapable of providing Cubans with the kind of decorous life that would make them want to stay in the country; it has also been unable to negotiate reasonable conditions for the granting of visas on the basis of reciprocity with other countries.

Having passed through hundreds of airports around the world, I can speak from experience and say that I have seen a fair share amount of situations in which Cubans are mistreated and humiliated. A case in point is the fact that, when a flight is cancelled, all regular passengers are lodged in a hotel (as airline regulations dictate), but Cubans must remain within the airport transit area and sleep on the floor or wherever they can, because they are not allowed to enter the country.

Or the fact that an immigration officer can take away a Cuban’s passport and retain it for several hours without offering a single explanation to the holder, who must wait in the uncomfortable corner reserved for them.

Most countries impose a long list of conditions and requirements on Cuban citizens applying for an entry visa. In the case of the Caribbean Basin region and Canada, these become stricter as a consequence of the demands the United States places on its neighbors to guard their borders by reducing access by Cubans seeking to avail themselves of the Cuban Adjustment Act.

Until recently, for instance, Mexico regarded Cubans as special migrants and had a system of restricted visas exclusively for them. A similar system was in place in Central American countries, such that Cubans could only set foot in them accompanied by a national who had to submit the visa application on their behalf, assume full responsibility for their actions within the country (as though the visitor were Freddy Krueger), and leave a monetary deposit as guarantee.

Today, the system is somewhat laxer, but, even when a Cuban citizen has the money for the trip and holds a valid passport, entering these countries continues to be a very difficult process for them.

The truth of the matter is that the rabid nationalism of the Cuban leadership has not only been incapable of providing Cubans with the kind of decorous life that would make them want to stay in the country; it has also been unable to negotiate reasonable conditions for the granting of visas on the basis of reciprocity with other countries.

Many are the countries whose nationals do not require consular visas to visit Cuba – they simply purchase a tourist card at a travel agency or at the airport. But Cubans can only enter a handful of countries without a visa, either because these countries do not require an entry visa at all or because their immigration mechanisms are hugely inefficient.

This can be justified, from a pragmatic standpoint, when the country in question is a vast source of tourism, but this is seldom the case. Let us look at the case of the Dominican Republic, where no considerable flow of tourism is involved.

Dominicans do not require a consular or any other type of visa to travel to nearly 60 countries around the world, more than ten of them in Latin America. They don’t need a visa to travel to Cuba. To do so, they need only purchase a tourist card that costs 15 dollars.

A Cuban who wants to visit the Dominica Republic as a tourist must first pay 90 dollars for a consular interview and 40 dollars for a certificate confirming he has no criminal record. He must be backed by a guarantor who has a regular job, owns property and has at least 7,500 dollars in the bank. He must submit all of these documents with a letter of guarantee issued by a notary and certified by the Attorney General’s Office. The entire process needed to obtain the visa can take up to two months.

Does everyone see the disparity here?

I want to point out that the demand for reciprocity in migratory issues does not belong to the realm of anti-imperialist ravings, but is, rather, a common international practice. In Chile – a neoliberal country governed by a right-wing coalition where nostalgia for the days of Pinochet abounds – US citizens are asked to pay 160 dollars for a tourist card, the same amount a Chilean must pay to solicit a visa to enter the United States. Fair is fair.

Having passed through hundreds of airports around the world, I can speak from experience and say that I have seen a fair share amount of situations in which Cubans are mistreated and humiliated. A case in point is the fact that, when a flight is cancelled, all regular passengers are lodged in a hotel (as airline regulations dictate), but Cubans must remain within the airport transit area and sleep on the floor or wherever they can, because they are not allowed to enter the country.

Another issue is the fact that, since the Cuban government has always been hostile towards those who emigrate from the country – a situation it is now attempting to rectify, one tiny step at a time – Cuban consulates abroad are seldom equipped to offer services to nationals. If a Cuban who ran into trouble in a foreign country knocked on their embassy’s door, they would be wasting their time miserably.

Allow me to share a personal anecdote. In 1995, I spent several months at the University of California in San Diego as a guest researcher. I had entered the United States from Mexico using a single-entry visa, and needed another visa to return to Cuba.

I approached the Mexican Consulate, accompanied by the pertinent officials, but the Mexicans refused to grant me the visa, invoking my special status as a “restricted national”. They told me, however, that the matter could be resolved quickly if the Cuban embassy interceded and offered a guarantee on my behalf.

I called the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City and I was told, simply, that they didn’t deal with such matters. When I was already scheming to become the first Cuban “reverse wet-back” in history, I ran into a Mexican friend who works at the Foreign Ministry. She intervened on my behalf and got me a visa in a few hours.

Finally, Cubans who travel to Florida, either to visit or move there permanently, must endure a final, dreadful process, when, while in Miami Airport, they are taken to a closed Homeland Security screening room and made to wait while their passport is scrutinized, almost invariably by officials of Cuban origin. And no one mistreats a Cuban more cruelly than another Cuban.

Nowhere have I been treated as unprofessionally as I was in this office in Miami Airport. The recently-arrived Cuban families, exhausted from their journey, devoid of any previous experience at an airport and accustomed to a life without civil rights and plenty of unshakeable decisions, humiliated by the Cuban-American officials, exposed to ridicule and impertinent jokes about the hunger and miserable life they supposedly endured in Cuba, are a spectacle indeed.

I’ve seen these things because, even though I travel with a Dominican passport and have a permanent US entry visa, I am also taken to this little room, thanks to my Cuban origin. The last time I was in Miami, I complained about the impertinence of a young official who asked an old man, in a loud voice, whether he was so scrawny because he wasn’t “getting enough grub” back home. I then had to wait two and a half hours for my interview.

I don’t know whether this was due to the rigors of their screening process, or because I was again at the bottom of the food chain, the place I thought I had left behind with the ocean-blue passport bearing Cuba’s national coat of arms.
—–
(*) A Havana Times translation of the original published in Spanish by Cubaencuentro.com.


6 thoughts on “Why Cuban Travelers Are So Vulnerable

  • April 26, 2013 at 3:26 pm
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    its no attack its the truth. Which you can face or not. I guess you won`t

  • April 25, 2013 at 4:18 pm
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    When you can’t defend your position with facts, you attack the messenger. Weak strategy.

  • April 25, 2013 at 1:11 pm
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    Of course Moses, no one takes you for serious anways. Of course in your eyes, or what`s left of them, its the fault again of the Castros. I suppose the are responsible also for the financial crisis, the world wide crisis of capitalism, and in the consequence mor and more restrictions on the freedom of their citiuens as far as being able to invite friend s from other countries. Its very special to your logic to try to villainize the Cuban government and socialism with your hateful unobjective tirades and insults. I wonder whether you work fr the US propaganda office.And which extended Human Right do the Us offer to me? Already coming to the passport contros makes you feel rather go back than enter thi country. And, at the other hand, I cannot imagine that you know all the contract ” the Castros” might have signed throughout all the different countries. So stay a liitle bit down to earth, if you want that people believe at least some of waht you inpublish in you selsufficient commentaries.

  • April 23, 2013 at 3:36 pm
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    The struggles Cubans face trying to visit and upon entering foreign countries as tourists is absolutely to be blamed on the selfish arrogance of the Castro regime. These migratory relationships are based on bi- and multilateral treaties. It begins with the guarantee of extending the same basic rights to the traveler that the traveler would enjoy in their own country. Why are Americans among the most welcome visitors around the world in regards to visa requirements? It is because even Austrians like you are extended basic human rights when you visit my country. As a result, Austria receives US tourists with open arms. The Castros have refused to sign these agreements protesting that it would compromise their soveriegnty. What idiots! The second most persuasive reason Cubans bring up the rear as welcomed tourists around the world is the reality that the risk of Cuban tourists overstaying their welcome is a historical reality. Despite your inane pro-Castro ramblings here at HT, the reality is that life in Cuba sucks for most Cubans. The things which add to the quality of life for the rest of us are hardest to come by in Cuba. Therefore when the opportunity for a bailarina, baseball player, doctor, car mechanic or a University professor arises to defect, they often do. These “escapees” arrive without money or possessions and are often feared to become an economic burden to their adopted government. Why does life suck so much in Cuba? Because the Castros are in charge. So, yes, the Cuban government is right to be blamed for the dogged treatment of Cuban travelers.

  • April 23, 2013 at 2:21 pm
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    “Or the fact that an immigration officer can take away a Cuban’s passport
    and retain it for several hours without offering a single explanation
    to the holder, who must wait in the uncomfortable corner reserved for
    them.”

    to be fair, i’m a Canadian and this has happened to me in Cuba as well as in other countries. I don’t think that this is a Cuban problem. But I also hate that and it always makes me nervous

  • April 23, 2013 at 1:16 pm
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    I don´t really see, why it should be the fault of Cuba , that other countries let Cubans in under only very difficult cercimstance or not at all. The Cuban government is not responible for unjust immigration kaws of other countries. Almost no country can be entered as easy ans Cuba, it takes about 29 minutes for your touristcard. Making it difficult for Cubans to go to other countries is an orquesterd action between the US and th EU. Even if one invites a Cuban citizen into one of the EU member States, authorities in most of the cases debie a visa, considering it might be an future illegal immigrant ( I experienced the case in February with my Cuban friend) unless he can prove his will to return to his country, Well, how can you proof this? The questions at the EU embassies are set up that way, that for almosts a 100% you do not get a visa. F.e.: do you own a house or houses, do you own land, do you have a business of your own ( then you have to prove that it had been flourishing for years), do you have a car or motobike. How much money do you have in your bancaccount ( minimum for the EU 5000 Euros – about 6500 dollars. Whether your children remain in Cuba, your wife etc.
    Its just a mockery pure, because 99% of the Cubans don`t meet the requirenments. And politically it has the effect required to counteract the Cuban liberalisation progress and put the government of Cuba it in a very dfficult position, having to explain to their citicens, that this whole migration reform was basically good for nothing. Effectively it´s just a strategy to put the Cuban government into difficultirs again, So I dot see, why it should be the fault of Cuba, as the author mentioned. It`s more than pure hypocrisis of the western countries again, having screamed for decades, what dictatorship Cuba was, not letting people out. And now they can get out exactly the same countries don´t let them in.. What a farce .

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