Tremenda Nota originally published this story on its website in Spanish.
HAVANA — A year ago Cuban migrants’ route was like a vast and swift-flowing river but on Jan. 12, 2017, Barack Obama and Raúl Castro agreed to put an end to the waterlogged policy regulating Cuban entry into the United States, blocking the current and forcing it to find a new course. No more wet or dry feet.
In 2016, sensing the end was near, more than 40,000 Cubans arrived on the Mexican-U.S. border with dry feet. The following year, after the new migration policy, there were only 15,000.
The end of the so-called “wet foot, dry foot policy,” established in 1995 by Bill Clinton, has spawned a muddy foot solution. Cubans are setting out on incredible journeys.
To Chile via Guyana
“Seven people thick with dust got into the truck,” wrote the 30-something doctor of pedagogy, who wishes to remain anonymous, in a letter that was made available to Tremenda Nota. She tells her friend who stayed in Santa Clara, “A woman asked me, ‘Are you Cuban?’ I just nodded and looked the other way. It was in that moment I realized that this was human trafficking.” This happened in Lethem, on the border between Guyana and Brazil. Guyana’s capital Georgetown is the last remaining point of entry for Cubans in South America; it is the only continental airport that allows Cubans entry without a visa.
“The whole time I was thinking, ‘Now they’ll kill us, we’ll have to run, you’re crazy,’” continues the educator in her letter. She says she was always interested in Uruguay, an expensive country but with a good quality of life. She wanted a place where they spoke Spanish so she could continue her career as a professor. She crossed the Guyanese jungle because the Uruguayan consulate rejected her application for a tourist visa in Havana.
Amaury Santos, a 20-something unemployed folk dancer, used the Georgetown route to reach a friend’s house in Concepción, Chile.
“The most difficult part of the journey was the mountains in Bolivia,” he remembers.
Amaury has now found work in a restaurant.
Cubans have been scattered around the world. The Uruguayan newspaper El País explored the phenomenon and found four out of every 10 Cubans granted residency in the country in the last two years were professionals. Migrants do not just stay in Montevideo; towns like Santa Rosa with a population of less than 4,000 took more than 220 Cubans during 2017.
There have been problems in Tarapacá on the Chile-Bolivia border. Since February 2017, with the end of “wet foot, dry foot,” more than 350 Cuban visitors requested entry into Chile. Last Oct. 13, 74 Cuban migrants without visas were stopped by border guards.
Amsterdam via Moscow
Two Cubans from Camajuaní and Yaguajay, José Miguel and Ana Estela, drink hot chocolate and occasionally smoke some marijuana, if a friend is sharing, in an Amsterdam coffee shop. They are under 30 and live in a refugee camp in Dronten.
In February 2017 many Cubans arrived in Holland. That month six requests were made for asylum, by November there were 57. José Miguel and Ana Estela say that many of the asylum seekers are gay, lesbian and transgender. None want to talk with the press. These migrants share discretion and an itinerary: Their one-way ticket is to Moscow, the main European destination where Cubans do not require a visa, then they travel to Holland and seek asylum in Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.
“We don’t want reprisals against our families,” says José Miguel to explain why he does not want to give his real name. Wearing a woman’s coat, with an astrakhan hat and cuffs, José Miguel takes a quick sip of hot chocolate before explaining why so many LGBTI people leave for Moscow and end up in Amsterdam: “There’s a rumor around Havana that the Dutch support homosexuals. And we’ve even heard it in the provinces.”
“There’s some exaggeration in the asylum interview,” Ana Estela explains. “But in these cases, you lie if you need to. The key is to learn your story well, so you can always repeat it.”
Very few manage to prove persecution in Cuba because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The structural discrimination exercised against sexual minorities in Cuba lacks enough drama to convince the Dutch authorities.
José Miguel and Ana Estela know that they will not be granted asylum. A few weeks after the chat in the coffee shop they left Dronten and went to Spain. They are living on the Mediterranean coast illegally and travel from Valencia to Murcia.
Aleida González Hernández, a dark-skinned 50-year-old who travelled to Moscow under false pretenses, she says she was “conned.” She found out about the opportunities available in Amsterdam in the same corridors of Schiphol Airport. They sold her the idea that the Netherlands was the ideal place to be a lesbian.
Aleida González looks weakened, fragile, “In Russia there’s no chance of becoming legal or of working and it’s a lie that you can get to the United States from there.” Mevrouw González, as they call her in the Netherlands (Mevrouw means “Madam” in Dutch), returned to Cuba “tired of being silenced and alone” in the Heerhugowaard refugee camp.
More wealthy Cubans do not have to migrate to Europe via Russia. They prefer to enter the Schengen Area then choose where to stay. They buy the Italian cruise package the state company Havanatur has offered since 2014.
That’s how Roberto García Gordillo, Aleida’s neighbor, did it. “It was my life’s dream. But I had problems with my boyfriend and I ended up alone in Italy and had a really tough time.”
Migrating under the guise of a tour around Italy has the advantage of including a Schengen visa, which the company in charge of the package arranges with the Italian embassy.
In a house in Pueblo Nuevo, a neighborhood in Sagua la Grande, Mevrouw González confesses that her trip to Amsterdam had not been the plan, “I requested asylum on the way back, disappointed with Russia and the Cubans there.”
Aleida was in Heerhugowaard, not missing Moscow, while Hanoi Llorca and Yenifer Graverán spent months in Sheremetyevo Airport. They’ve been stranded there since November 2016. They lived between a terminal and a refuge until October 2017. Their saga touched on all of the extremes experienced by Cubans in Russia, where they are only allowed to stay for one month.
“My orishas walked half way around the world with me,” says Mevrouw González invoking the spirits of Cuban Santeria, daughter of Obatalá. “They accompanied me on this difficult journey, picking up earth from Moscow, from Amsterdam and from the refugee camps. Now they are stronger. So strong that they bought me back to Havana.”
With her own two feet, which were not wet or dry but muddy.