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Photo: Sadiel Mederos.

Cuba’s Emigration Drama: Leave or Stay?

1 / febrero / 2023

Riding a horse “bareback and spending 12 hours on the highway with your head on the floor of a truck, stuck to the vomit of other migrants, are some of the roughest moments Luis Nerey remembers from his journey from Nicaragua to the United States.”

He managed to leave Cuba in January 2022, but it was an idea he’d been flirting for years before. In his hometown of Camaguey, his income as a tour guide had been dropping and it was hit especially hard when the pandemic came. He tried to reach Canada with a work contract, but his arrangements didn’t work out.

“After what happened on July 11th in Cuba, and seeing what happened to people who took to the streets to protest, I made up my mind for good. I just had to wait for the Nicaraguan Embassy to open up their system for me to apply for a visa. Luckily, they announced visa requirements had been lifted on November 22nd and that’s when I said it’s now or never,” he says.

Once he bought his plane ticket, he told a couple of his friends about his decision, but none of them had enough money to embark on this journey with him. Plus, they were really scared. In the end, a cousin decided to go with him.

He paid 1,560 USD for a round-trip ticket from Havana to Tocumen Airport in Panama City, with Copa airlines. Then, he paid another 480 USD to travel to Managua on a Conviasa flight.

Luis Nerey and his cousin did the math. They had 12 hours – the maximum amount of time Cubans are allowed to have a layover in Panama without needing a transit visa – to board a flight to Nicaragua.

“Lots of Cubans are afraid to fly like this and make the connection flight because ECASA ([Empresa Cubana de Aeropuertos y Servicios Aeroportuarios S. A.], the government-owned company, had recently said that connections between different airlines would not be possible,” he recalls.

“It created a whole lot of confusion, but a friend from Havana and I looked into it. We called Copa’s offices, the Panamanian Embassy and they told us that it was possible. We decided to take the risk. Then, my friend sent screenshots of the conversation she had with the Panamanian Embassy to ECASA, as well as emails from Copa and ECASA corrected their statement, a few days later. Lots of people began to fly via this route from that moment onwards.”

Luis Nerey points out that a lot of money is needed to make the trip. Even though he had savings, his journey was only possible thanks to help from his family.

“It cost 8,500 USD in total. 2,000 in plane tickets, 4,500 to pay the coyotes (smugglers) and 1,000 for one-off expenses such as paying at checkpoints, and paying off Immigration officers and police in Honduras, Guatemala, etc.,” he says.

“Any “extra” food, drinks and water you want – that is to say, that isn’t included at places of accommodation – are cheap in these countries.”

According to Nerey, he took at least half of his cash in small bills because Central American countries accept dollars, but they always give back change in the local currency.

“You cross over from one country to the next so quickly that you practically don’t have time to spend the national pesos they give back to you,” he recalls.

Luis Nerey speeds through every detail of the journey so as not to forget anything. The coyotes’ fee included food, accommodation – sometimes in small hotels, but mostly in private homes near each border, and transport, whether that was a horse, motorbike, truck, boat or plane.

“You shouldn’t take all of the money you need for the journey in cash. Family members or friends in the US can pay by making direct transfers to the coyote or to some of their employees via Western Union,” he says.

“The coyotes are in constant communication with our relatives from the moment we leave Cuba.”

Athough some Cubans have been deported from Central American countries, such as Guatemala or Honduras, because of their illegal status. The number of people being sent back to the island from these countries is much lower compared to the number of people detained in Mexico.

Luis Nerey believes that the reason for this is because they cross through these countries very quickly and at checkpoints, Immigration officers and police normally ask for 10-30 USD per Cuban to let them pass over.

“We were scared an Immigration officer would deport us, in the beginning, but then we realized that lots of them are just after money.”

His journey was made in haste. He didn’t have a lot of time to think and plan. The only stories he’d heard were those published in the press, but he didn’t have anyone close to him or someone he trusted to tell him what it was really like. The only – and the most important – thing he knew was that his friends had managed to make it to the United States.

His journey lasted twenty days. He took photos and videos along the way, which he only shared with his father and other relatives that welcomed him. He also looks through them in the evenings when he still finds it hard to believe he made it to his destination. His family in Cuba are unaware of the details, as well as the photos. Not even knowing he’s safe now would his grandmother be able to handle the risks he took; not even his mother.

It took him 16 days to travel from Cuba to the US border. Some migrants make it in a bit more time, or less, depending on their means of transport, the situation at checkpoints and the federal police, and whether drug cartels give them permission to carry on with their journey or not.

Luis Nerey says that his greatest fear was that Copa or Conviasa would cancel the flights or not allow him to fly because a document was missing.

“This was happening quite regularly and lots of people were losing their money. Lots of people were afraid that they’d be held prisoner in Mexico under the “Quedate en Mexico” (Stay in Mexico) program that had just begun to be implemented. But others of us were only afraid of the “Quedate en Cuba” (Stay in Cuba),” he jokes.

He recalls the toughest moments during that 20-day journey.

“The first one was when we had to cross the Nicaragua-Honduras border in the early morning. Those were 50 never-ending minutes of riding a horse bareback. The pain in my crotch and the blisters that came the next day were unbearable,” he says.

In Honduras, he saw other Cubans arriving at Immigration offices to apply for a letter of safe passage that would allow them to travel across the country, some with fractures because they’d fallen off their horses, and there was even a young woman with her foot in a cast.

Image

Even though they all had to put their most important belongings into a plastic bag during one point in the journey, Cuban migrants use backpacks like these to carry all of their memories.

Another unforgettable experience was traveling in the back of a pickup truck for 12 hours, at over 160 km/h, with another 30 travel companions covered by a tarp, completely disoriented and smelling the vomit of other travelers who had got travel-sick along the way. On top of that, the driver was taking drugs to stay awake. “The same driver who took us to the house in Honduras died the next day on his way back to Nicaragua,” he laments.

If he didn’t make it, Luis Nerey had already thought about staying in another Central American country to work. Going back to Cuba was never an option, only if he was deported.

According to him, members of the Red Cross in Honduras gave them a map with all of their offices and migrant centers across Latin America, in case they needed to ask for help and shelter if anything came up.

Along his journey, he met citizens from Nicaragua, Venezuela, Haiti, Russia, Romania and Brazil at the homes he stayed at.

There were 50 people in his coyote’s group, including women traveling alone with children. “A siblinghood was created along the way. We all helped each other. The people traveling with me are already in the United States,” he rejoices.

Luis Nerey never stopped to count how many people he met along the way, at the detention center on the border, at the homes and hotels where he stayed; there were too many. “I think I saw 100 Cubans arrive every day, when I was being held “prisoner” for four days,” he says.

It isn’t an exaggerated guess. According to US Customs and Border Protection, 224,607 Cubans arrived at the US-Mexico border in the 2022 fiscal year (from October 2021 to September 2022). Luis Nerey was one of them.

In Cuba without wanting to be

Frustrated in her hometown of Camaguey, Leydi Laura watches all of the people she knows who reach the United States with envy, after they make the journey via Nicaragua. She would have liked to have gone too, but she didn’t have enough money.

“I sold my home, but even then it wasn’t enough money,” she says. “I only got 6,000 USD for my one-bedroom apartment in the Mella neighborhood – on the outskirts of Camaguey. That wasn’t enough to cover the costs of mine and my daughter’s trip. It was only enough to pay for the plane tickets,” she sadly says.

Leydi Laura has a degree in Sociocultural Studies and works in a bookstore. She’s been wanting to leave Cuba for a long time, but it wasn’t until her daughter turned 7 years old that she began to seriously plan the departure.

“It’s hard to be a single mother, even more so right now,” she says. “I don’t want to leave for myself so much anymore, now I want to leave for my daughter. Every day, I feel like there’s less and less of a future for her here. I don’t want her to feel the frustration I feel.”

She says that looking in the mirror scares her, she feels old and alone. That’s why when Nicaragua lifted visa requirements, she thought her time had come. She applied for a passport for both of them during the pandemic, and the father never took responsibility for her daughter so he’s not registered on her birth certificate. She doesn’t need his authorization to leave Cuba with her daughter.

“I have friends who have separated and wanted to travel with their children, but the fathers of the children haven’t granted this authorization,” she explains. “I had full parental responsibility of my daughter, so I don’t have this obstacle.”

Leydi Laura had everything ready. She got into contact with another six Camaguey locals, from different Facebook groups, who wanted to embark on this journey and they planned everything.

“I didn’t sleep those days,” she says. “We made a WhatsApp group to be in constant communication and to get in touch with the coyotes, the place we’d stay the first night in Managua, the intermediary that would get us plane tickets for the same flight,” she says.

Leydi Laura was able to raise 3,000 USD by taking a loan from a friend in Italy and a great-aunt in Houston. But it still wasn’t enough.

The day before she had to say “yes” to the person who was going to buy the plane tickets, she gave up. Lots of people had warned her of the danger of going without all of the money she needed, which was even more dangerous with a little girl.

“I cried a lot because I was so frustrated. I watched my friends from the group leave and reach their destination in 18 days. They were really tough days, they told me, but they reached their goal.

Meanwhile, I’m still here in Cuba: without a house, with a little girl and with a great desire to leave. I’ll find a way, I just have to carry on trying,” she concludes.

This article was translated into English from the original in Spanish.
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