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Latin America

The Cubans who left it too late: stranded on the island or stuck en route

In Cuba, some sold everything to fund their journey to the United States, only to find themselves locked out after repeal of the so-called 'wet-foot, dry-foot policy' that once guaranteed legal permanent residency to any Cuban reaching U.S. soil. It's the latest chapter in the painful Cuban migration saga.
15 Ene 2017 – 01:25 PM EST
A family walks on the seafront in Havana on January 12, 2017, after the United States announced the end of the Wet-Foot Dry-Foot policy that had given preferential treatment to Cuban immigrants since 1995. Crédito: EFE

Havana - Maribel has been thrown through a loop. Her eyes are red and her face contorted. Her thick tears stream down her cheeks and crash on to the white and black tiles of her neighbor’s house.

Maribel cries, screams, and punches the wall. She had sold her house 12 days prior to pay for her journey to the United States. But now, Maribel, (who asked that her full name not be used) and her two daughters will not be able to complete the plan.

Their dream is dead and they have no home. A surprise immigration agreement - negotiated in secret - between the Cuban government and the Obama administration, on Thursday repealed a longstanding 'wet foot, dry foot' policy that gave preferential treatment to Cubans fleeing the communist-run island.

The policy had existed since 1995, serving as an incentive for Cubans to migrate to the United States due to the social benefits and permanent residency that dangled like a carrot if they reached American soil.

After it was rescinded, Cubans like Maribel and her daughters, will share the same status as migrants from any other country. Elimination of the policy has long been a wish of the Cuban government, along with the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which offers special benefits to Cubans who arrive legally with a non-immigrant visa and choose to stay.

But, on the streets of Havana many do not know whether to cheer or cry.

Sold up

Maribel sold everything for passage through Mexico. She had a tiny, third-floor apartment in Central Havana right across from Fraternity Park, where the living room was also the bedroom and the kitchen and bathroom were separated by nothing but a thin curtain.

She sold the apartment cheaply - for $2,500 - as she was in a hurry. "That gave me enough money to buy a ticket to Mexico for myself and my two daughters and then have some left over to cross the border,” she said.

Maribel looked at her daughters playing in the corner of her neighbor’s living room. One is six, the other four. The younger daughter does not know her father and the older daughter’s father lives in Spain. He did not know that Maribel was taking his daughter to the United States without his consent.

“I was tired of having to fight every day on the streets to feed them and give them clothes and take them out on the weekends, she said.

Maribel’s voice is hoarse from crying so much. “And now what can I do? I’ve lost everything. I don’t have a home, I don’t have any money. I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said, collapsing into a wooden chair.

Maribel was an only daughter and her parents passed away more than a decade ago. Her neighbor is upset at the situation but says she can only help temporarily. She will let the family of three stay so that the daughters can go to school until Maribel finds her own place.

Maribel’s tickets are for a flight to Mexico City leaving on January 14th. “I don’t know what I'll do. I can’t cross the border anymore. But I don’t want to be in Cuba any longer.”

Stuck en route

After hearing the news on Cuban state television, Marta Estrada and Humberto Gomez hurried to a wifi park in El Vedado neighborhood to get in touch with their son, Tony, who had been on the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts and Nevis for two weeks.

Estrada, 51, and Gomez, 53, left their home with barely any time to get changed. Estrada wore a dress, flip-flops, and carried her tablet. Gomez was in shorts, a sweater, and had his smart phone. They arrived and sat on the sidewalk under a street lamp.

Their son Tony, 27, had hoped to get to the U.S. Virgin Islands, and apply there for U.S. residency under the dry foot rule, before flying on to the U.S.mainland.

Photo Caption: A group of Cuban immigrants rests in a shelter in Turbo, Antioquia, in June 2016. More than 500 Cubans attempting to reach the United States were stranded in the country after Panama closed off access to its border. Raul Arboleda / AFP / Getty Images

“We’re worried for him because they just knocked down the Wet-Foot Dry-Foot policy and it can be a problem if they catch him illegally crossing the border. Luckily, he’s still in Saint Kitts and Nevis as a tourist and he can come back,” Marta said as Humberto wrote to Tony.

A little later, they talked to Tony via video chat. Tony tolds his parents: “Things are stirred up here. There are hundreds of Cubans like me who were going to cross the border but now they don’t know what to do. I’m going to wait a few days and on Sunday I’ll return to Havana.”

His parents advise him to come back, to not try anything risky. Tony seems to have a clear head and has decided to put the whole ordeal behind him. “It’s my own fault. There’s no smole without fire. For a while now people have been saying that this would happen. And look, it happened, even before Trump. I should’ve left earlier,” he said.

An hour later, Marta and Humberto said goodbye with everything under control. On the way back home Humberto said, “We didn’t ask him about Enrique and his wife and daughter. They traveled with our son but they truly are backed into a corner. Imagine it, they sold their car and their apartment and they quit their jobs. I don’t know what they’ll do. They have nowhere to go.”

Swallowed by the sea

On the other side of the city, in the San Miguel del Padron province, Lorena de la Caridad, 59, has adorned a photograph with white butterflies. In front of the picture is a blue crystal vase with regularly watered flowers. The faces in the photograph are indistinguishable, the white petals cover them. Only their bodies are visible.Two men, dressed the same.

“When I found out, there was nothing I could do. I stayed paralyzed in my chair until Pancho, my husband, arrived. He already knew. Seemed like he had heard the news on the street. As soon as he walked in we hugged and cried together,” Lorena said.

Lorena and Pancho are active members in the Communist Party of Cuba. Their house is filled with revolutionary objects. There are two pictures of Che Guevara on one wall, and a painting of Fidel Castro jumping off a war tank during the Bay of Pigs Invasion on another. There is a 2017 calendar with the slogan “The conquests of the revolution shall remain unconquerable.”

And maybe because of this, Lorena refers to the United States as “the enemy” or “those from the North” in a disrespectful tone. “They took both of them. And I will never forgive that. They made the ocean swallow them,” Lorena said with a fixed stare.

On April 6, 2001, de la Caridad returned from work and was surprised to find her twin sons, Adrian and Arian, missing. Both employed at the Faculty of Biology at Havana University, they left a handwritten note on the table:

“Mom, take care of Dad, and don’t fight with him over his nonsense. We’re going to be gone for a few days. Ari and I are going scuba diving with some friends. Wait for us to call you. Don’t do our beds because we’re old enough to leave them messy."

Arian and Adrian never returned home to make their beds. Along with 12 other people, they made a small boat and took to the sea headed for the U.S. coast. Neither de la Caridad, or any of the other 12 families, ever heard from them again.

“I don’t have the words to explain it. There is no way to explain it. It's a pain that never goes away. Every day of my life I feel it in my chest," she said.

"Pancho barely talks any more. The only thing he does is go to the malecon (seafront) every Sunday. He sits there for two hours and throws two white butterflies into the ocean,” she said.

Pancho then talked for the first time in the entire evening: “What hurts the most is that I don’t know why they took to the seas. I don't know if it was becuase of the (U.S.) Cuban Adjustment Act or the (Cuban) Revolution.”

Cargando Video...
How a group of recently arrived Cuban arrivals found out about the end of the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy