“You have to leave Cuba, even if it’s swimming,” a young man, a friend of a friend, with whom I met weeks ago in Santiago de Cuba, tells me categorically. We are at my friend’s house, where we have gone for different reasons ― me, to pay a visit after three years without going to that city; him, for an “errand,” which, as I later learned, was money sent by another friend from “outside” ― and, drinking coffee, the dialogue almost inevitably takes the most common course of many conversations in recent times on the Cuba: that of the thousands of Cubans who are leaving the country month after month, week after week, to try to reach the United States.
“To stay is madness,” the young man replies when my friend, more cautious and thoughtful, comments that he finds it is “madness” that so many people throw themselves into the sea or cross jungles, even with small children, and that they risk their lives and spend thousands of dollars without having any assurance that they will achieve their purpose. “It’s just that no one can put up with this or fix it,” he explained, “and many people don’t want to continue with the hardships and standing in queues all their lives. I don’t know about you, but I have already collected almost all the money, and as soon as I have everything ready, I’ll get out of here, even if it’s for Greenland.” “Look, this is a journalist and he’s going to include you in a feature article,” my friend warns him jokingly. “Well, let him do it,” the other replied, “and let me know by WhatsApp, because with luck I hope to be out of Cuba by then.”
I think of the young man, whose name I never got to know ― my friend introduced him to me as “a buddy” ― when just a few days ago the topic of mass emigration resurfaced in a conversation, this time in the queue to buy potatoes in the neighborhood market. The queue moves slowly, as if in a glass capsule in which life moves in slow motion, and the resigned would-be buyers spend time hiding from the sun and gossiping with other would-be buyers. The departure of the son of a neighbor who is not in the queue right now, gives rise to a debate in front of me, in which some sympathize with the mother, others support that the boy ― who, according to what they say, left with several friends ― has taken “the leap,” and others regret that “the situation” is leading many to take that path.
“I don’t know how far this country is going to go if so many people continue to leave,” complains a woman who is ahead of another woman who is ahead of me, and who talks with her and other neighbors under a small balcony. “At this rate, the only ones left will be the elderly, the stupid and those who have no way of leaving,” she adds, visibly worried. “I wouldn’t be so sure about the old people,” a man replies mischievously, only to recover his seriousness almost immediately: “A cousin of my wife, who is already about 70 years old, went to Mexico with her husband, who is even older, to meet with their children, and they already entered the other day. And an acquaintance of mine, also over 60, left for Nicaragua with his daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. He had a huge house and I think he was even about to retire, but he didn’t wait around for his pension to come out.”
“People have always left Cuba, and more so when things have gotten bad, or don’t you remember what happened in the 1990s?” says another woman, who is a few turns ahead, but who has joined the group while keeping an eye on the chelonian movement of the queue. “But there are always other people who decide to stay. I myself don’t intend to leave, despite all the problems there are, which I don’t deny. But the thing is that I grew up and studied here, here I raised my family, here I work in what I like, and I know that in another place I will not feel the same. The times I’ve gone abroad, it’s not that I’ve had a bad time, but in the end I’m always dying to come back,” she explains. “So I’m not criticizing whoever wants to leave: it’s their decision, it’s their life. But I really couldn’t.”
Between that conversation at my friend’s house in Santiago and the debate I witness in the endless queue for potatoes, many other times I talk or hear about the immigration issue, on the street or at a bus stop, by chat or in the unbeatable ― humanly and journalistically speaking ― tête à tête, in conversations with other friends and family or talking to strangers, already with this work in mind. I do so at a time when news and rumors on the subject are practically the daily bread, when day after day one hears about someone who has left ― always, or almost always, for the United States ―, or that he arrived, or that he did not arrive: that he was arrested, or repatriated, or that, sadly, he lost his life in the attempt.
This is a context in which it has been officially reported that some 115,000 Cubans have entered U.S. territory in the last seven months, in which a thousand have been returned to the island from Mexico this year and as many have returned on U.S. Coast Guard boats after being rescued on the high seas, not a few of them after capsizing their precarious vessels. A context in which Washington finally reopened, although still in a limited way, its consular services in Havana and announced other measures towards Cuba; in which the Cuban authorities have once again held their U.S. counterparts responsible for the current flow of migrants and accused them of failing to comply with bilateral agreements; and in which both parties have even returned to the dialogue table, while the Biden administration is pushing to reverse Trump’s immigration policies and has expedited the entry of Cubans who arrive at the border, a window that many have tried to take advantage of.
I am back in Santiago, in the Alameda Park, a couple of days after visiting my friend’s house. I now share with other friends, a couple, proud and exhausted parents of a whirlwind three-year-old, of which they leave me in charge for a few minutes, or rather chasing him all over the place, trying to keep up with my recently met “nephew,” which just as easily runs in a straight line as he goes around flower beds and benches with the speed of a Formula 1 car. When I at last catch up to him I pick him up as well as I can, all the while trying to catch my breath, and I can’t avoid hearing two men talking on a bench nearby. They are trying, I suppose, not to raise their voices too much, though not enough to prevent me from hearing them.
“Don’t think twice about it, these things have to be done in the heat of the moment, and right now there’s a chance,” one says to the other. “If the problem is that you lack money, I can lend it to you and then we’ll see when you’re there. But you have to have someone buy the tickets now, they are being sold out.” “I don’t know, nagüe,” the second responds, “there’s something there that doesn’t add up, and if things get complicated later along the way?” “Asere, what are you scared of?” asks the first, “weren’t you the one who said you were dying to leave? Look, my family has already arranged things with the coyote and as soon as I tell them, they’ll buy the tickets, but we have to move fast, or we’’ miss out.” “And what do I do with my wife and my daughter? Because I don’t have enough money for them,” says the undecided. “Well, I don’t know, man,” the other answers, “talk to your wife, think things through, because I can’t help you with that. I wish I could, but no. You can still go and take them out later, if that’s what suits them. But talk about that quick and tell me, to know what I must do.”
Back with my friends, after another round of chasing the child, I tell them what I managed to hear while resting. “Yes,” he tells me, “here there are many like that, arranging things on the run, selling even what they don’t have, because they say that right now they are letting everyone in and people are trying to take advantage. In my neighborhood there are a few involved in that story, who have sold the house, the car, all the devices, and have even gone into debt to leave.” “It’s that they need about 10,000 dollars per person, according to what they say,” she points out, “can you imagine? Where do you get 10,000 dollars from one day to the next, or more if you go with the family? We ourselves, if we wanted to leave, we couldn’t, unless we sold the house, and I don’t think so, because prices have begun to go down with so much supply.”
At least my friends from Santiago, according to what they tell me, have no plans to leave Cuba, much less irregularly. “Going to see the volcanoes,” as the migratory route from Nicaragua is popularly known ― the most used since that country eliminated the visa requirement for Cubans ― seems to them too risky and insecure a route for anyone, and even more so if the crossing involves children. “For one, who is an adult, it must be very hard, imagine with a child,” he tells me, and talks about several acquaintances who have taken that path in recent months and “tell of horrors.” “And the sea is even worse,” he adds. “A group from the neighborhood went through Villa Clara and the boat capsized when they were reaching the Bahamas. They spent I don’t know how many hours in the water until they were rescued and returned here, but there were two who never appeared. And even thus there are people who take their children that way.”
Another friend agrees with them, this one from Havana, who assures me that she “as a mother, would never do something like that.” In her case her, she tells me, “it’s unthinkable” that there are women who endanger the lives of their children “on one of those trips,” “without having any idea of what could happen.” “Everyone is aware of what they do,” she emphasizes, “but I can’t even imagine that something happens to the child because of me. If later, when he grows up, he decides to leave, that’s up to him, but as long as I support him, he doesn’t leave Cuba, at least not like this.”
In her decision to continue on the Cuba, in addition to the dangers of an irregular trip, the age and health of her parents also influence, a reason that leads many Cubans to stay “despite everything.” “Imagine, they are already over 70 and have a few illnesses, and, although they are still active, by law of life they are not going to get stronger,” she points out. “Who is going to take care of them if, God forbid, they break a bone or are bedridden for some other reason? Or if their mind begins to fail him, which already happens to them from time to time? My brother, back in the United States, who has his own problems and already does enough with money he sends us? Or their brothers and sisters, my uncles and aunts, who are as old or older than them and who also suffer from a thousand illnesses? No way, I can’t even think about leaving here, even if it’s through legal means.”
Contrary to what my friend thinks, for other people with whom I talk about the subject, their children and parents are a motivation to leave the island. “From there I can help them more,” a street vendor with whom I spoke tells me while on a tour of Havana a few days ago. “With the money that I start sending them as soon as I can, they will be able to live better here, or actually less badly, until I can take them away somehow,” adds the man, who claims to be glad that the U.S. government is beginning to process more visas in Havana, even though he and thousands of other Cubans do not have that card in hand right now to be able to emigrate. His option, then, is to “go up through Central America and pray that everything goes well.”
“For the good” of his children, Marcos would also leave, who affirms that his plans to leave the country seek, more than anything, to “give them a future” so that they don’t have to experience the chronic deficiencies and difficulties of the island for a long time. However, he acknowledges that, “for now,” he would not embark with them on an irregular journey, nor does he plan to do it on his own, so his efforts are focused, like those of many young people, on obtaining a scholarship, a master’s degree or a work contract that allows him to travel with his wife and children, “even if I have to pay to get it.” “I’m already working on it,” he tells me without giving me any more clues, “because it has had to be done in silence and there are things that have to be hidden in order to achieve them.”
A young woman, who prefers not to tell me her name and with whom I spoke several weeks before, just after returning from Santiago, outside the Embassy of Panama ― to which she has gone in search of the coveted “transit visa” ―, tells me, for her part, that she, although she does not have children, if she did, she would not go “anywhere” without them. “I have to take advantage of the moment to leave, since I’m not leaving anyone behind, because if I end up having children in Cuba I won’t have the heart to leave without them,” she points out frankly. “Actually, I hope I don’t have to go through that, but if I were to give birth here, I think I would always take my children with me wherever I went, that’s why I would be their mother. A friend of mine did it: she left with her husband and daughter through Nicaragua, and she has already arrived. They had a hard time, like everyone else; the trip lasted more than a month, but she is already there with her daughter, and they didn’t have to separate, which is what’s important.”
Also in the area around the Embassy of Panama that day I met Yosvani, who is going through the same procedures as my previous interviewee. Like her, and like others with whom I have spoken in recent weeks, the economy is the main argument for his immigration plans. His intention, he says, is to “prosper,” an idea that more and more Cubans seem to consider incompatible with staying on the island. “It’s just that they don’t give you a chance here, brother. When it seems that they loosen up a little, they come and tighten on the other side, and so there is no one who can move forward,” he explains clearly, without having to give more details.
In his case, however, he also weighs the political situation in the country, especially after what happened on July 11. “I’m not in prison by chance,” he confesses to me, “because that day I had something to do outside the neighborhood, and I didn’t get involved in anything. But if I had been in the area, it is most likely that I would have been part of the protests, along with several of my buddies who in the end were sentenced to a few years, because they stayed when things heated up. And it got ugly. And honestly, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to remain calm if something like this happens again, which could well happen because of how things are looking. Because this does not get better. So it’s better to try to leave anyway, even if it pisses me off a lot to have to leave my parents. But it’s worse if I’m jailed here.”
Eduardo does not think the same. I talk with him in El Vedado and he says he “sincerely” hopes that new protests like those of J11 don’t occur and the situation in the country can “improve little by little.” This young man, who is self-employed and works as a computer scientist and plans to have his own MSME “later on,” affirms that he is not fooled and that he knows “the many obstacles and difficulties that exist in Cuba.” But, at the same time, he trusts that “with work and dedication” he can “get ahead” without having to leave the island. “A few years ago nobody thought there would be private enterprises in Cuba, and there already are. Neither that private businesses could export, and they already can. I know that there is still a long way to go, that a lot of things have to be fixed, but I do hope that they will be fixed,” he considers.
A few days later, at nightfall, the migratory issue also seeps into the discussions of a group of neighbors around a domino table, where I stop to listen. “Well, I repeat that I am not the one who has to go,” emphasizes the one who has the leading voice in the debate and in the game, before forcefully throwing a domino on the table and challenging the player next to him. “Come on, play, play without regret ’cause you don’t have this one,” he says convinced, and when the other, in fact, lightly hits the table with his clenched fist, he lets out a triumphant laugh and returns to the attack: “Let’s see, If this is my country, if this is where the environment that I like is, why do I have to leave to live better? No, let those who don’t let Cuba get ahead leave, not me, because the only thing I do is work hard and beat you people at dominoes.”
“Watch out what you’re saying,” the player who just passed mockingly replies, “it could be that you end up playing dominoes somewhere else and not precisely outdoors.” “But I haven’t mentioned names,” answered the first, after his partner had played at the other end of the table. “Let whoever the shoe fits put it on, and finish playing because this is not chess, or is it that you don’t have a domino to play either?” “No kidding,” the other goes on, while he gently places a domino on the polished wood, “I understand what you’re saying, but for things to improve, it’s not enough for those you love to leave. Others also have to stay, those that are worth it, but some of those are also leaving. And if the good ones, who is going to fix this then?” “Well, not you,” the first jokes again, “if it’s because of how you play dominoes. Look, you just gave me the win without realizing it. OK, let’s start counting.…”
While the defeated argue among themselves and the group has fun with the victors’ jokes, I check my WhatsApp and find a message from my friend from Santiago. “Do you remember the buddy who came to bring my errand to the house, the one who told you that he would leave as soon as he could?” he asks me. “He already flew the coop. He must be on his way to Mexico right now. Are you finally going to write something about that?”