The End of the Journey
For more than 50 years, Cubans had the doors open to enter the United States. That changed earlier this year, when President Obama modified immigration rules, leaving hundreds of Cubans who had already begun their journey through South and Central America, stranded. Ivo Torres is one of those who has been left out. Now his future depends on being able to answer a key question: in the XXI century, are Cubans political or economic migrants?
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Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
In our last episode, we told the story of four Cuban immigrants and their journey to the United States.
[Yoannelis]: They told us: “You aren’t the first or the last Cubans who are going to die here. If you don’t cooperate, you’ll die. And who’s going to come looking for you here? Either give us the money or die here. It’s that simple.”
[Yoandra]: And my last words were: “Thank you so much Panama.”
[Raikel]: And I even felt proud of myself because…because…because I saw that all of that…all of that sacrifice had paid off. That we had made it, that it wasn’t all in vain, that everything we went through bore…bore fruit.
[Daniel]: If you haven’t listened to it yet, we recommend that you do. Today’s episode is the second part in our series on the new era of Cuban migration.
From 2014 to 2017, more than 100 thousand Cubans tried to enter the United States. A mass exodus. The idea was to take advantage of a policy known as “Dry feet/wet feet,” a US decree allowing them to enter.
Up until January 12th of this year, 2017.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORTS)
[Journalist]: Very well, it has been reported within the last hour that Barack Obama, in his last week in the White House, will do away with the policy known as “Dry feet/wet feet” and will order the repatriation of…
[Journalist]: The White House has announced this afternoon a that the change in the “Dry feet/wet feet” policy will be effective immediately.
[Daniel]: More than 300 Cubans who were in Panama, on their way to the United States, were taken by surprised when the “Dry feet/wet feet” policy was revoked. They were left in limbo. And while it was being decided what was going to happen to them, many of them ended up taking refuge in a shelter run by the government of Panama.
Our producer Luis Trelles went to the shelter to see what kind of condition they were in. But when he arrived, this is what he found:
[Luis Trelles, reporter]: There’s no trace of any Cubans here… from the entry way.
[Luis]: I’m telling you, this is the quietest shelter for Cuban migrants in the world. It…it looks unbelievable.
The shelter is in the province of Chiriquí, near the border with Costa Rica. It’s in a very beautiful albeit isolated field. In the middle of the forest there are a few large barns or barracks made of wood. They’re so old and run-down they look abandoned.
There were a number of armed soldiers standing at the entry way. In fact, they wouldn’t let us in, despite the fact we had permission from the Director of Immigration. So we sat and waited, until we saw a pale, light-eyed guy in a grey polo with his collar up. Having the air of an American tourist, he looked completely out of place in the shelter, but he came up to talk to us through the fence separating us.
[Ivo Torres]: They’re not letting you in?
[Mario Pentón]: Not yet. They’re working it out for us to get in.
[Luis]: This is Mario Pentón, a journalist with the independent media outlet 14ymedio, who came with me to the shelter.
[Ivo]: Yeah, we’re really locked up.
[Luis]: And this is the guy in the grey polo: Ivo Torres.
[Ivo]: Imagine, we’re all locked in here with nothing to do. And we have a lot of time to think and no information.
[Luis]: Our conversation didn’t last long. The captain of the Panamanian guards interrupted us, he walk up to us talking to Ivo by surprise.
[Captain of the Panamanian Guard] Gentlemen, I don’t think this is appropriate.
[Mario]: Is there something wrong with us talking to him?
[Ivo]: No, were having a conversation. It’s not an interview. We’re having a conversation.
[Luis]: And right after Ivo answered him, the captain looked at him as if he couldn’t believe Ivo was talking to him.
[Captain of the Panamanian Guard]: Please…move over there, please.
[Luis]: They made him go in.
The authorities from Panama City had told me that the Cubans weren’t being held prisoner at the shelter. But at that moment, I wasn’t so sure.
Eventually they worked through all of the bureaucratic hurdles and let us in. Once inside the shelter, our welcoming committee was a dozen Cubans with long faces sitting around an old wooden table. As soon as they saw me, they started talking.
[Cubans in the shelter]: [Several talking at once]
[Luis]: All at the same time…
[Mario]: If we go one by one it’ll be better and I think it’s easier. That way we can understand each other.
[Luis]: It was a round table with all kinds of people sitting around it: young people, older people, men and women. They were very frustrated, most of all because they felt that Obama had taken away the American Dream that the US had offered them.
[Cuban in the shelter]: Because if it weren’t for that, none of us would be on the way. Because you don’t leave for a dream that hasn’t been promised to you.
[Daniel]: For more than 50 years, any Cuban who entered the United States legally had the opportunity to become a permanent resident. It was a way to attract Cubans who didn’t agree with the island’s Communist government and in so doing destabilize one of their biggest rivals in the Cold War.
And there one question that is central to this story.
[Cuban in the shelter]: Most of us left because of economic troubles. We left to make a future primarily for our children.
[Cuban in the shelter]: We didn’t leave because of economic troubles; we left because we didn’t agree with the government we have.
[Daniel]: Which of these voices represents the Cuban migration of today? In order to try to understand, we’re going to tell Ivo’s story…
[Luis]: After our first meeting at the entrance, it was hours before we saw Ivo again. But finally, we did see him again. It was in a corner of the shelter. And I walked up to him because I was worried about the run-in with the captain of the guard. And so I asked him:
You’re OK, right?
[Ivo]: No, yes, yes, it’s ok, it’s ok.
[Luis]: When I sat to talk to him, it didn’t take me long to realize that Ivo was the type of person who didn’t normally react well to authority figures.
[Ivo]: What I wanted to tell the captain is that I’m not going anywhere and I can talk to whoever I want, because I’m free to talk to who I want, when I want, where I want. That attitude in Cuba [laughs] is very problematic, it gets you in a lot of trouble.
[Luis]: And maybe that’s why he always knew that one day he would have to leave…
[Ivo]: As long as…as long as I was able to think I realized that Cuba was not where I was going to live my life. Because in Cuba… In Cuba… Everything is restricted. Everything is imposed. Everything is ordered and directed.
[Luis]: In the early ‘90s when he was still a boy, Ivo started to reject the government’s official rhetoric. It bothered him that leaders asked for so much sacrifice in the name of the Revolution when those same leaders had a life style that was much more elevated than the rest of Cuba.
[Ivo]: Because it’s a system that generates corruption. And I saw that when I was 12 years old. “They aren’t good revolutionaries.” I said: “Well, they aren’t good revolutionaries and they’re living off the Revolution; and I, being a good revolutionary, am not doing well. I don’t understand, it’s a system that doesn’t work.”
[Luis]: Some time later he started to make friends who belonged to the Partido Liberal, a small political party that had good relations with the US government, the Cuban government’s number one enemy.
All of this happened toward the end of the ‘90s when there were still no diplomatic relations between the two countries. The United States didn’t even have an embassy in Havana. At that time, they only had an office known as “the United States Interest Section in Cuba.” The site of the office was surveilled by Cuban authorities and sometimes turned into the focus of massive government organized protests.
Ivo went there with his friends from Partido Liberal for totally different reasons. There they offered him something he couldn’t get anywhere else in Havana.
[Ivo]: “Do you want to get on the internet?” I tell him: “Yes, of course I want to get on the internet. How could I not?” So he told me, “sure.” On top of that, there wasn’t just internet, there was a library with a really good collection.
[Luis]: And there, going through the web pages of the day, leafing through books and looking at American propaganda, he learned historical facts that he didn’t know about before. Ivo told me that some topics weren’t discussed in public, they weren’t even taught in school. Events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example.
But just using the American’s internet put him on the authorities’ radar.
[Ivo]: I got threats.
[Luis]: Every time there was some kind of international event, agents of the state came to surveille him. When Pope John Paul II went to Cuba in ‘98 for example…
[Ivo]: They had people follow us. We knew they were there. They let us know… “Hey we’re here,” but that was all.
[Luis]: Something similar happened the next year.
[Ivo]: When it was the presidential summit, they had people from State security at the door to the house.
[Luis]: It’s not that he was a dissident. It wasn’t like that at all. He was never arrested. He wasn’t under constant surveillance. On the other hand, Ivo never joined the Communist Party, of course, and he didn’t want to work for a State-owned company either. Instead, he learned to speak English. And then, he learned to speak French. And thanks to that, he became a tourist guide, someone who takes foreigners to the best places in Havana’s nightlife.
[Ivo]: My job was to take care of my customers. If they wanted a shot, I got them a shot. It they wanted…and of course, those customers were going to party. So sometimes we were up all night. Sometimes I drank and got drunk with the customers too because that’s part of it. And that’s how I got tips.
[Luis]: Think of Havana. What probably comes to mind are those worn-out images of American cars in the ‘50 and houses falling apart. And you do see that from time to time. But Havana is also a tourist paradise that many Europeans and North Americans visit to smoke good tobacco and drink good rum. And for people like Ivo, it’s their job to get foreigners everything they want.
[Ivo]: Everything for every customer. I couldn’t… I mean, I know that what some customers wanted was…women and tobacco. And I tried to get those people who just wanted women and tobacco to see the side of Havana that wasn’t…
[Luis]: But you would arrange that for them too…
[Ivo]: Of course! Definitely! And I knew where to take them.
[Luis]: In other words, he took them to where there were prostitutes, if that’s what they wanted.
[Ivo]: I understood… I understood that that’s part of the attraction that tourists had to Cuba. We ran into that issue, that Cuba is a paradise for cheap prostitution, and that… But it’s much more than that.
[Luis]: And I was surprised that he said that so openly.
[Ivo]: It’s the hard part of my job. I don’t like it at all. I always told them: “I’m not going to look for women for you.” Because others do look for women, but I’m no pimp…
[Luis]: He also didn’t charge a commission for introducing his customers to girls. His job, he explained to me, was this:
[Ivo]: I am going to translate your conversation, but don’t ask me to tell her to lower her price. I’m here drinking my rum, don’t bother me for anything.
[Luis]: And that’s Ivo. In Havana there’s a name for people like him. They’re tourist guides and they’re the people who connect foreigners to Havana’s social scene…for a price, of course.
[Ivo]: At first, they gave me tips, then I set a rate [Laughs]. So…
[Luis]: How much do you charge?
[Ivo]: I charge $50 a day.
[Luis]: Not bad!
[Ivo]: No. In Cuba? That’s great. I mean, why did I leave? Was it because of economic trouble? No. I didn’t leave because of economic trouble.
[Luis]: He had a job that evidently he liked. He made more money in one night that many Cubans make in a month. So… Why did he leave?
[Ivo]: I wanted to travel. I wanted to learn about different places. But not from books, because I already knew the books by heart, their stories, everything. No, I wanted to go to those places. And in Cuba, I would never be able to do that.
[Luis]: And that’s Ivo too. A 38 year old guy who wants to see the world and have extravagant experiences. He was a dandy trapped on an island that had done everything possible to eliminate social classes. Even more than the other migrants in the shelter, where many people came from provincial towns in the country, Ivo seemed like a fish out of water. And his reasons for leaving were also different from the rest.
[Ivo]: Look, it’s not even about buying the house and the car, which is what everyone here wants. No. That isn’t what I want. I want to live in apartment with one bathroom. Yeah? And have a good job. But I want to invest my money in my studies, in books, that’s what I like. In travel. Ah, of course, in nightlife because I like that life I had in Cuba.
[Luis]: I can tell!
[Ivo]: I like it.
[Luis]: And in 2014, Ivo decided that he didn’t want to wait anymore. He talked about it every day with his boyfriend, Celso, who he had been with for 5 years. Ivo suggested that they get in a raft and take to the sea. He was ready to do whatever it took to leave Cuba.
But Celso went ahead and applied for a visa to go to Venezuela, where his aunt lived. And to their surprise, they gave it to him. And that’s not all. He got a visa for Ivo too. So they left.
The idea was to eventually make it to the United States, but they only had enough money to get to Caracas. There they moved in with Celso’s aunt, but Venezuela wasn’t what they expected. The three of them lived in a small apartment without any money.
[Ivo]: I left with an idea. I left with the idea of carrying my own weight. Working, making money, living on my own with him and building a life. And we weren’t doing that… We were living in his aunt’s house.
[Luis]: They didn’t even have the lifestyle they had in Havana.
[Ivo]: I wanted to start living and I was still just surviving.
[Luis]: On top of that, a difficult time had hit Venezuela. Chavismo was entering a crisis. There were shortages in the stores, many basic products like flour and cooking oil could only be gotten from bachaqueros, merchants in Venezuela’s growing black market.
And for Ivo, in the end realizing his goal of leaving Cuba to go to Venezuela…We’ll say it was a little disappointing.
At any point did you feel like: “Wow, I’m back in Cuba?”
[Ivo]: Yes! Of course, I was in a way. But Venezuela is never going to be Cuba. For example, I would get on the metro, get off and go where the bachaqueros were, buy something and go back. You can’t do that in Cuba, understand? There were commodities from…from development. They had internet. It was… You went to a store and they wouldn’t have the essentials but they had a lot of other things…
[Luis]: But in order to buy these products, essential or not, they needed to make money. Celso is an IT technician and he found an ingenious way to make money: filling out online surveys.
These are marketing surveys to measure American consumer preferences. Pepsi or Coke, McDonald’s or Burger King. But Ivo and Celso were from Cuba, a socialist island that had been under a very strong US economic embargo for decades. Many of these products and companies simply didn’t exist on the island. Sometimes Ivo and Celso didn’t even know what the surveys they filled out were about.
[Ivo]: For example, “ready to drink beverages”…
(SOUNDBITE FROM A COMMERCIAL)
[Narrator] For years people have been working to perfect the margarita.
[Ivo]: I had no idea what the hell that was. And I saw that here.
[Luis]: It’s like a cocktail in a… In a bottle.
[Ivo]: Uh-huh, which do you prefer? I always said that I prefer the whiskey, the rum and the vodka.
[Luis]: These surveys are targeted at consumers in the United States, so in order to take part Celso made fake profiles. For the survey about the cocktail in a bottle, for example, Ivo was…
[Ivo]: A Latina mother who was married to an American who had two children, a girl and a boy.
[Luis]: An alcoholic mother of two. “I have to change diaper after diaper and I want it to be ready now”…
[Ivo]: They liked that because it seems like the objective of the whole thing was to get people to drink more and drink the ready to drink beverages.
[Luis]: It was an unexpected lesson in capitalism. But there was another kind survey that also took them into unknown territory. One of the surveys that got Ivo’s attention the most was the one from YouGov, a survey about the US presidential campaign.
[Ivo]: Always Hillary, never Trump [Laughs]. Yes, because… I had by opinion without being able to enact it, but I did vote, I always said on those surveys, that I was going to vote and I was going to vote for Hillary.
[Luis]: The surveys didn’t pay a lot, from $2 to $10 every time you filled one out. But they kept themselves afloat by filling out about 250 a month. And of course, the money wasn’t enough to enjoy the lifestyle Ivo wanted.
A year after they arrived in Venezuela, in 2015, Ivo and Celso saw the news that Cuban migration was immense. Many people were making very long journeys over land to get to the United States, like the ones described in our last episode. There were too many people and many countries that served as means of egress started trying to halt the wave of Cuban migration.
In November 2015…
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Journalist]: 1,600 Cuban migrants who were issued 7-day transit visas by the government of Costa Rica were surrounded by riot police and the Nicaraguan military.
[Luis]: Nicaragua shut off the pathway for thousands of Cubans trying to enter from Costa Rica.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Journalist]: With extreme military force, the government of Nicaragua expelled hundreds of Cubans who had entered the country illegally.
[Luis]: Closing this border started a chain reaction that rippled throughout the entire region. The effect was felt in Ecuador, which was the largest entry point for Cubans leaving the island.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Journalist]: With the intention of avoiding a humanitarian crisis of even greater proportions on the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Ecuador found one way to reduce the influx of Cuban migration to the United States.
[Luis]: Cubans traveled to Ecuador because it was one of the few countries in the hemisphere that didn’t require an entry visa, but toward the end of 2015, that changed too:
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Ecuadorian ambassador]: Starting December 1st, Ecuador will require visas for Cuban citizens.
[Luis]: Then the bottlenecks started to form: Cubans stranded at different points along the way. Hundreds, sometimes thousands. First Costa Rica, then Panama, and then in 2016, this occurred in a small town on the Colombian border:
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Journalist]: More than 100 Cuban migrants have been stranded in Turbo, Antioquia for nearly a month. They are remain in sub-human conditions. They are overcrowded and food is growing scarce.
[Journalist]: The migrants remained stranded in Colombia after the closing of the border with Panama.
[Stranded Cubans] We want to move on! We want to move on!
[Luis]: In Caracas, Ivo tried to convince Celso that it was time leave Venezuela. But Celso wasn’t convinced. He always justified the idea of staying.
[Ivo]: “No, the money,” “no, we don’t have enough,” “no, I want to fly there.”
[Luis]: After much negotiation, in January and April of 2016…
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Journalist]: A Panamanian-Mexican air bridge opened today with the first group of Cuban migrants who have been stuck in Panamanian territory. To the north, in Costa Rica…
[Luis]: And we need to remember that once in Mexico, Cubans just needed to cross the border in order to start the process of becoming a permanent resident of the United States.
According to Ivo, his disagreement with Celso started to come to the level of crisis. Ivo didn’t want to wait anymore. So he told him:
[Ivo]: I’m taking the money we have and I’m going to go.
[Luis]: And that was it. Toward the end of 2016 he left on his own. Without Celso. He took a bus to the Colombian border at Cúcuta. There he crossed without being asked for his passport. Once he was on the Colombian side, this was his first thought.
[Ivo]: I’ve already gone through the dark, at least, toward freedom. Cúcuta was completely different from Venezuela. You can feel it. There were lights… It had a different smell, the people were different.
[Luis]: The next step was to cross the Darién rainforest to get to Panama. Like so many other Cubans who took the same path, the experience was very hard. Four days of mud, high peaks and fear.
Ivo had joined up with about 20 other Cubans guided by a coyote, and what he remembers most…
[Ivo]: The ones who came with us said that I was taking drugs in the morning because I got up and set out. It was because I wanted to get out. It was my will to get going, get going, get going and when I would see everyone I was like: “No, no, don’t sit down, don’t sit down, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.”
[Luis]: And after 4 days, when he finally made it out of the forest, now in Panama, they told him the news.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Barack Obama]: The policy that we had in place was “Wet Foot/ Dry Foot”, which treated Cuban emigrés completely different from folks from El Salvador, or Guatemala or Nicaragua”…
[Ivo]: What Obama struck down was the executive law “Wet Foot/ Dry Foot”.
[Luis]: And what was your reaction?
[Ivo]: Denial. I said, “There’s no way.” There’s no way. That was a congressional law and Obama can’t get rid of it.” [Laughs]
[Luis]: But it was true. Dry or wet, Cubans could no longer set foot in the United States. Ivo was among the last people to leave Darién, and like many others, he ended up in the Caritas headquarters in Panama City. Caritas is a Catholic organization that provides shelter for immigrants.
Caritas’ office is in a two-story house where barely two dozen people can stay. But in a matter of days…
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Journalist]: In the shelter there are around 300 people, but not all of them are in the two-story building. The majority are in tents and makeshift restrooms on the patio. There are several pregnant women living on site. They are requesting permission to stay in Panama.
[Luis]: Ivo soon found himself in the middle of that crisis he had seen on the news in Caracas. Now he was one of the Cubans who was stranded on the way. And people like him continued to arrive every day. People who had just left Darién learned that the law had changed.
During the day, Ivo helped make lunch for everyone who was stranded at Caritas and at night he left the house to explore Panama’s nightlife.
[Ivo]: I, well, I met a lot of people. I got to know the city. They took me to restaurants. They took me to the hot spots.
[Luis]: He got a job as a busboy at a restaurant. He had left the Darién rainforest three month prior when the government announced that it would relocate all of the Cubans at the Caritas shelter to another shelter, one with better living conditions.
At first glance, it wasn’t bad news. But the government also announced that those who did not relocate would be deported. So Ivo was forced to accept. And there, in that new shelter, was where I met him.
[Daniel]: We’ll be back after the break.
[Kelly McEvers, host de Embedded]: Hey, I’m Kelly McEvers and Embedded is back. And recently we realize —is hard so assess a politician who has virtually no political record. But with Donald Trump, we tried anyway. And we wound up with stories and lessons from the record he does have: in business and on TV. Listen on the NPR One app or wherever you get your podcasts.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. Let’s continue with our producer Luis Trelles.
[Luis]: Nothing was very clear at the new shelter. First they told the Cubans that they would be transferred to a third country that would accept them, like Canada or Australia. Then they talked about sending them back the country they came from, which is to say Colombia, but no one wanted to go back. And they also mentioned an option that no one wanted to hear: deporting them back to Cuba.
Most of the Cubans had sold everything, even their houses, in order to make the journey. Not to mention the thousands of dollars that many of them had received from relatives in the United States.
Obviously, Ivo didn’t want to go back to Cuba.
[Ivo]: I had already burnt all of those bridges. I left all that behind for…for something better. I mean, I don’t…I don’t see myself in Cuba. I don’t feel OK in Cuba –I feel suffocated in Cuba, oppressed. I feel like… I don’t know, like when you catch an animal and lock it up, so that…so it can only move, eat and sleep. That’s how I feel in Cuba.
[Luis]: And while his future was being decided, his only option was to remain locked away in the shelter. And it was clear that he wasn’t happy.
[Ivo]: I don’t have any connection to the country. I’m not interested in nature. I’m from the city. From hot spots [laughs], clubs and restaurants. This isn’t me.
[Luis]: The routine in the shelter is always the same: they sleep 8 in a room. On Wednesday they take a bus that is supervised by the Panamanian Immigration Service to take out money that their relatives send them. And the rest of the time:
[Cuban in the shelter]: [Playing dominos] Sorry, Leo. [Laughs]
[Cuban in the shelter]: Look!
[Cuban in the shelter]: Sorry, Leo.
[Ivo]: They’re having a domino tournament over there.
[Cuban in the shelter]: Playing a game, because think about it, we’re bored here.
[Cuban in the shelter]: Dominos is the Cubans’ game.
[Luis]: After our interview, Ivo showed me around the shelter.
[Ivo]: And here we buy coffee.
[Luis]: Oh, you buy coffee here?
[Ivo]: Here you buy coffee, you smoke a cigarette.
[Luis]: And while we were walking through the halls, I started to see a little village the Cubans had built there. The residents are people who are used to making a lot out of a little. To making do (“resolver”), as they say on the island. And that brings about all kinds of inventions.
[Cuban in the shelter]: A kind of improvised “selfie stick”…
[Luis]: Like when Ivo took me to the room of a man who had made a “selfie stick” out of wood attached to the bed. That way he could lay down and watch videos on his phone.
[Cuban in the shelter]: And these are things you come up with in order to be more comfortable here even considering what the situation is really like for us.
[Luis]: In the end, Ivo ended the tour by taking me to his room. There were four bunk beds where really only three could fit. What got my attention, aside from the beds, was the fact that you couldn’t see any personal items. And when I asked Ivo where his things were, he pointed to the corner.
[Ivo]: That bag. That’s it.
[Luis]: Your life fits inside that bag?
[Ivo]: Yes. In fact, I have everything ready in case I have to leave, I just have to grab that and go.
[Luis]: It was the middle of June 2017 when we said goodbye. I wished him luck and told him that I hope his story has a happy ending. But I admit that I said it without a lot of conviction. It seemed inevitable that Ivo and the rest of the Cubans would be deported back to Cuba.
A month after leaving Panama…
(SOUNDBITE FROM YOUTUBE VIDEO)
[Viceminister of Public Safety]: I’m going to be very frank, this option is not viable. As has been said…
[Luis]: This is Panama’s viceminister of Public Safety. He visited the shelter where Ivo was staying.
(SOUNDBITE FROM YOUTUBE VIDEO)
[Viceminister of Public Safety] The option that I’m going to present to you today is economic support. It’s a process, a voluntary repatriation.
[Luis]: In other words, they offered them $1,600 and a plane ticket if they returned to Cuba. It was a way of erasing the Cubans’ problem without much scandal.
The vice minister gave them 15 days to consider the offer. Even though they didn’t really give them another option.
Everything seemed to indicate that Ivo had reached the end of his road, when I received a message from him on Whatsapp.
[Ivo]: Hi Luis, well, you already know the news. You saw, we’re in the 15 day grace period to think about what we want to do. I don’t want to go back to Cuba.
[Luis]: And he wasn’t the only one. The Cubans in the shelter were starting to escape.
[Ivo]: Seventeen people out of 117 have already left. Now there are just 100 of us left. Out of that 100, I can’t tell you the exact number, but quite a few are planning to leave between Saturday and Sunday.
[Luis]: The plan for those who ran away was to cross the borders at Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico to get to the United States and request political asylum there.
It was a long journey that they would have to make by foot, on boats, in taxis and on buses. Obviously it was very risky, not just because of the dangers on the route, but because there was also a chance they would be caught along the way and deported. But that was the last card they could play.
The journey isn’t cheap. They didn’t just need money to pay the coyotes to take them from border to border, but they also needed to hire a lawyer in Mexico who would help them go through the process of acquiring a letter of safe conduct that would allow them to go to the US border.
Ivo didn’t have the money, but he knew how to get it. He had kept in touch with some of his customers from his days as a tourist guide. Over time they had become friends and now they were about to get him out of the biggest bind of his life.
[Ivo]: I’m talking to a few friends who already helped me once. They gave me enough money to get here. And I waiting for them to send me money to keep going. But I didn’t want to just hurry and leave right away. Because I also don’t want to take unnecessary risks.
[Luis]: In that message, Ivo explained that leaving the shelter was a delicate matter. Several Cubans had been caught in Costa Rica and Nicaragua and had been deported to Cuba. Ivo wanted to wait a little so that he wouldn’t leave with a large group of 10 or 12 people because they were easier to detect and apprehend.
It was the middle of July and in those days I called him several times. But with no luck. There were days I wouldn’t get news from him, and of course I started to worry. Until I received this message.
[Ivo]: My friend, you and I are connected, because I was thinking about you too. Today, I’m leaving for Costa Rica. In other words, I’ve decided to do it and I have the money now and I have everything. My friends in the United States helped me, like I told you. Remember? Wish me luck. Pray for me if you believe in God. And whenever I can and I have service I’ll send you a message. I’m thinking about leaving the camp here this afternoon. That’s my plan.
[Luis]: A little later, I got a text that just said, “I left.” And the next day I got a Google Maps link to his location: he had made it to La Cuz, in Costa Rica, right by the Nicaraguan border. An hour later I got another message.
[Ivo]: Man, everything’s fine. I’m here in La Cruz waiting to see if I should leave for Honduras tonight. But if not, I will tomorrow. I’ll keep you posted.
[Luis]: Before finally leaving Costa Rica, Ivo sent me one last message detailing the route he was going to take:
[Ivo]: The plan is to go through Nicaragua tomorrow and be –it’s Tuesday, right?– be in Honduras by Thursday or Friday at least.
In Honduras we’ll need to stay one or two days waiting for the safe conduct that they give us in Honduras. From there we go through Honduras, we cross through Guatemala up to Tapachula and we have to stay in Tapachula for a month, more or less waiting for the safe conduct with a lawyer.
[Luis]: So the plan was to get to Mexico in a week. I was waiting for more messages from Ivo along the way. But after that, nothing. Again.
This time the break in communication lasted 10 days, until I finally heard from him again.
[Ivo]: Everything’s fine. Everything’s fine, brother. It’s all good. I’m in Honduras. It’s been an odyssey. I’ll tell you the details later, but everything is fine. If I get a chance I’ll tell you later, or tomorrow morning because I’m wiped.
[Luis]: And 5 days later, this:
[Ivo]: Hey man, I’m in Tapachulas, Mexico now. I got here around 3pm today.
[Luis]: He did it. He made it to the most important stop on the way up to now.
[Ivo]: It’s been a rough journey, but thank God, there was nothing deadly. Well, we’re a little tired, our feet are swollen, we haven’t slept in two days, but…but we’re finally here.
[Luis]: Four coyotes, 5 borders, $1000, around 2,000 miles covered: that was the cost of the journey.
In the 15 days it took them to get to Mexico, Ivo and the 3 Cubans who went with him went through forests on foot and crossed over water in secret boats. In Nicaragua, when they took a bus, they had to pretend they were American tourists so they wouldn’t turn them in to the migration authorities. At the border between Honduras and Guatemala they were extorted by the police. And with each step there was the fear of not making it safely and being deported to Cuba or getting killed.
And of course, Mexico isn’t their final destination, but it was the last hurdle.
His plan, he told me, is to go to the US border and turn himself into the migration authorities there. That’s the first step in requesting political asylum. The process is long and complicated and the US government can deny the request at several stages.
The first obstacle is at the border crossing. When Ivo turns himself in, a US deportation agent will hear his case. At that moment, Ivo will have to convince them that he was being persecuted by the government and that he will face reprisals if he had to go back. At that point, the deportation agents will have Ivo’s future in their hands. They can deny him entry, forcing Ivo to go back to Mexico, or admit him to a migrant detention center inside the US. If that happens, Ivo would be locked away for days, even months. Then, an immigration court will finally decide to grant him political asylum or issue a deportation order.
So, entering the United States is difficult and many people would say that he doesn’t stand a very good chance. However, Ivo doesn’t see it that way.
[Ivo]: At first, I had doubts when I left. The journey was what I was afraid of. That I would have enough money, that nothing would happen to me along the way. How to go. What to do. That was what I was worried about. I was never… I was never worried about the North American part. Every day it feels more real, closer.
[Luis]: The last time I spoke with Ivo was in early September this year, 2017. His plan was to turn himself in to the immigration agents on September 20th. But later I lost contact with him and I never found out if he made it.
I wanted to know how he was, so I called Celso, the partner Ivo had left Cuba with. He was still in Venezuela and he told me that Ivo had managed to get in and that he was in a detention center for migrants in Southern Texas.
When I spoke with Celso, migration authorities had not even looked at his request for political asylum. That process could take months, and all the while Ivo would have to be detained once again without knowing if he would be able to stay or if he would have to return to Cuba. Celso had managed to speak with Ivo several times and told me that he was fine, even though Ivo told him that he was worried about his future. In the end, he got into the United States, but he still hasn’t made it to his destination.
[Daniel]: The US Citizenship and Immigration Service is in charge of cases like Ivo’s. They don’t have recent statistics on Cuban entry into the country since “Dry feet/Wet feet” was revoked. However, Fundación Cuba Libre calculates that more than 1,300 have entered the United State since January. Many of them are still in migrant detention centers and the foundation knows of more than 100 cases that have received deportation orders back to Cuba.
This story was made possible thanks for support from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.
This episode is part of a series on a New Era in Cuban Emigration that was reported in collaboration with 14ymedio and El Nuevo Herald.
Special thanks to Alejandro González and Mario Pentón, with 14yMedio, and José Iglesias and Nancy SanMartín, with El Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.
Luis Trelles is a producer with Radio Ambulante and lives in Puerto Rico. This story was edited by Camila Segura and me. Mixing and sound design by Desiree Bayonet and Andrés Azpiri. Ana Prieto did our fact checking.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Jorge Caraballo, Barbara Sawhill, Ryan Sweikert, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Luis Fernando Vargas and Silvia Viñas. Maytik Avirama is our editorial intern and Andrea Betanzos is the program coordinator. Carlina Guerrero is our CEO
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website: radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin American I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.