Angel Antonio and Arlyn Torres are two young from Cuba who – like tens of thousands in the last several months – have sold everything to make the crossing through Central America and reach the United States. They say they’re going in search of “a normal life”, which “is very difficult” in their country.
The young married couple, who by June 16th had reached the border between Guatemala and Mexico, shared details of their plans, their dreams, and their fears during an interview with EFE just two days before they left Cuba. Their testimony reflects the migration crisis their country is suffering.
The “normal” life they seek, Angel says, “is one where having food isn’t a problem, or having a home of our own and the independence that comes from our own work and incomes.” “That’s very difficult in Cuba,” he added.
The two of them have joined the tens of thousands of Cubans who’ve taken advantage of Nicaragua’s decision in November 2021 to allow Cubans to enter the country without a visa. Most who arrive in Nicaragua are beginning a journey whose final destination is the United States where they’re determined to “begin again from nothing.”
Even though the crossing is complicated, involving excessive risks to their lives, and leaving them at the mercy of “coyotes”, not to mention the high economic costs and the possibility of being deported, Arlyn and Angel left Cuba on the weekend of June 11-12, “without looking back.”
According to the US Office of Customs and Border Protection, between October 2021 and April 2022 nearly 115,000 Cubans have arrived at the US southern border via the Central American route that Arlyn and Angel are following. That number is now approaching the scale of the largest migration wave in recent Cuban history: the 125,000 who left during the “Mariel sea exodus” in 1980.
Fear “won’t stop us”
“We’re fearful. We’ve sold everything, they could deport us, and there are even stories of people who’ve been killed. The best thing is not to think too much about those things,” Arlyn commented. Thirty years old, with a university degree in accounting, she previously worked as a cashier at a private coffee shop in Old Havana.
Angel, her partner, is 27, and worked in a cigar factory. He never thought about leaving, but “a series of things” led them to make that decision. “We were both hospitalized for Covid-19 and food began becoming scarce,” he noted.
“We want to have children. So, we thought: ‘How are we going to feed our children without that stress of where to obtain food and what meal to invent?’”
Angel is now determined to reach their goal, in the face of the “lack of hope” in Cuba. He underscored the fact they’ve borrowed thousands of dollars from their relatives in the US, and he’s conscious of the “uncertainty of not knowing if we’ll get there. But no one can stop us,” he added.
The “Nicaraguan route”
Angel and Arlyn opted for the “Nicaraguan route” which leads north from Nicaragua through Central America. Despite all the risks it involves, it’s the path most used in the last years by Cubans heading for the United States. The sea route is far more dangerous.
Soliciting an immigration visa for the United States is difficult, costly, and uncertain. The US Embassy reduced their consular services in Havana to a minimum in 2017, and only this year began to increase them gradually once again. The majority of the visas are transmitted from third countries.
The couple estimated that the trip will cost them US $23,000, including airplane tickets, lodging, transportation and, of course, the payment to a “coyote”. In their case, the coyote was recommended by a friend and cousin who preceded them along the route and are already in the US.
According to what they were told, the journey begins when they reach the Managua airport, coming from Havana. There, they’ll be met and recognized, thanks to photos of how they’re dressed.
“[The coyote] will pick us up there and take us to a hostel. The next day, we’ll leave in a taxi to the border with Honduras. We’ll cross that border on foot and ask for a transit visa. Then, without sleeping or anything, we’ll continue on towards Guatemala,” Arlyn explained.
In that country, “things get more complicated,” because “you don’t get any documents for safe passage,” she continued.
“They say it’s where you have the worst time, because we have to cross the country lying on the floor of a bus, so that the Police or Immigration officials don’t see us and stop it when it goes on the highway.” She continued: “You must lie on the floor without moving for about 12 hours. You can’t get up, not even to use the bathroom.”
Once at the northern Guatemala border, they’ll cross a river “on a raft” towards the Mexican city of Tapachula, Mexico. “There, we hope to get the humanitarian visa that they’re giving out. The process is fairly quick – in two or three days,” Arlyn detailed.
“With that document in hand,” she said, “you can travel north through all of Mexico, because you’re legal there.” The only hurdle then remaining is to cross the country and “turn yourself in at US border.”
The “coyote” charges US $5,500 per person. Apart from this, they must have about US $1,200 more in cash, money that they’ll be paying out all along the way.
Beginning all over again from nothing
Angel said that neither he nor his wife “areafraid of work.” In Miami, where their family members live, they’ll “work at anything, as long as it’s honest.”
Arlyn added: “The first thing is to pay back the debt, then get settled, work, become independent, and form a family.”
“Our dream is to have our own place, our own little house. We’ve had to do all this because in Cuba living together is complicated. Almost no couples can live independently, and that always causes problems,” noted Arlyn, alluding to the chronic scarcity of housing on the island.
The increase in Cuban emigration is triggered in the first place by the grave economic crisis that the country is facing, as a result of factors including the pandemic, increased US sanctions and government errors in macroeconomic administration. There are also some who leave because of the political repression.
In addition, the Cuban government accuses the United States of fomenting illegal immigration by facilitating residency papers for Cuban nationals under the Cuban Adjustment Law, and by not fulfilling “its legal obligation to award no more than 20,000 visas per year,” according to a bilateral agreement.
Is leaving Cuba painful?
“Yes,” the two young people responded in unison. To her, “it’s not only leaving Cuba – it’s the family, the neighborhood, my country.” But they see no alternative. If they don’t go, she commented, “we’ll never achieve our dream.”
“With heavy hearts and tears flowing, our friends and close family members told us: ‘Go ahead!’ And they say it aware of the situation that exists, because they’ve lived through periods like this one or worse, and they know the many things we lack,” said Angel.
Arlyn is also clear: “You have to fight for your dreams and unfortunately, this isn’t going to change. There’s no hope at all (in Cuba). You must take the risks.”