Translation: The long road

Translation: The long road


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Translation by Patrick Moseley 

[Kelly McEvers, host Embedded]: Hey, I’m Kelly McEvers, and Embedded is back. President Donald Trump has no record of public service, but he does have a record in business and on TV. In our latest round of stories we introduce you to the people who were there as he build an empire and a name. Listen on the NPR One App or wherever you get your podcasts.

[Daniel Alarcón, host]: An announcement: If you’re in New York, join us on October 26 for a night of live audio storytelling. You will hear from producers from your favorite podcasts: This American Life, More Perfect, Radiolab and Latino USA. And of course us, Radio Ambulante. The event will be in English. All the money we raise will go to support Puerto Rico. You can find all the information you need on our website: Thanks for buying tickets and for helping us spread the word.

Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.


[Boat crewmember] There’s a raft over there.

[Boat crewmember] A raft?

[Boat crewmember] Yeah, there are rafters!

[Daniel]: You’re listening to two Cubans on a boat. They live in Florida and are probably US citizens. This audio was taken from a YouTube video and what you see from the boat is a black dot bobbing between the waves.


[Boat crewmember] Look at them trying to come over in a raft, man. There are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… there are 6!

[Daniel]: 6 Cubans paddling on an inner tube that’s looks like it’s about to burst.

The men on the boat turn off the motor and go over to them.


[Boat crewmember] Go straight, man! Go straight! Come on, go straight! Go straight!

[Daniel]: They’re guiding them to the Florida Keys, a few tiny islands that are about 90 miles from Cuba.  And even though they may want to help them, they can’t because of legal reasons we’ll get into later on.


[Boat crewmember] That’s just great: we come across some Cubans and we can’t help them, man. It’s a real shame…  

[Daniel]: When we think about Cubans coming to the US, images like these tend to come to mind.

But what many people don’t know is that thousands of Cubans aren’t traveling by sea, but instead are going another way that much longer. This is about a new generation of Cuban migrants who would rather travel by land, going on a journey that’s just as dangerous.

So this week and next week, we have two stories that try to make sense of this phenomenon. Because behind this change, there is geopolitics, the legacy of the Cold War and in the middle of all of it, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Cubans who are willing to risk everything to make it to the United States.  

Our producer is Rolando Arrieta.

Here’s Rolando.

[Rolando Arrieta, reporter]: Yoannelis is 37 years old. For a long time, she worked selling rice and vegetables in a market. She lived in Las Tunas, a town on the eastern side of the island. She made about a dollar a day and she had to use that money to support her mother, her father and her daughter.  And obviously, that wasn’t enough.

[Yoannelis]: My country is wonderful. What I really… I wanted to give, I mean, I wanted to give more to my family and the Cuban economy wouldn’t let me do that. That was the only problem I had in Cuba.

[Rolando]: So in August, 2014, Yoannelis decided to leave the island in search of a better life. She started her journey by way of a country on the other side of the continent: Ecuador.


[Journalist]: Ecuador started turning into an attractive country for Cuban migration since 2008, when the Rafael Correa government adopted an open borders policy with nearly every country in the world and eliminated the visa requirement.

[Rolando]: Yoannelis sold her things and was able to get together enough money to buy a plane ticket and leave her country.

And of course, Yoannelis wasn’t the only one…


[Journalist]: It is estimated that more than 20 thousand citizens of the island have gone to Ecuador in the last five years.

[Journalist]: Thousands of Cuban citizens that arrived in the country have not returned to Cuba and currently live illegally in Ecuador.

[Rolando]: And that was what happened with her. After three months the period in which she could qualify as a tourist expired but she stayed… undocumented.    

[Yoannelis]: I spent a year and a half there illegally. And if migration caught you and you didn’t have legal documents they would send you to Cuba.

There were Cubans, thousands of Cubans, who hid from immigration agents. It was terrible. Ecuador was really tough.

[Rolando]: She gathered together the money she could to send back to her family on the island, always planning on making it to the United States.

It wasn’t going to be easy.  She had to cross 8 borders illegally; it was a journey that would cost $10,000 more or less, but for Yoannelis, it was worth it to try.  

At the same time, Yoandra, a childhood friend of hers, also left Cuba for Ecuador. But her situation was different. She left after her husband.

A few months back he had gone to Ecuador as a tourist, but since he was an industrial engineer, he had more opportunities to stay and work legally.

Yoandra’s husband bought her a ticket to Quito, and in April 2015 she left Cuba with Arián, her four year old son.

[Yoandra]: Well, nothing. When I got there, he was waiting for us in the airport. He had his little gifts, a bouquet of flowers… Everything… everything was very sweet, very romantic.

[Rolando]: Now in Quito, Yoandra also wanted to bring over her brother Raikel. And she was able to.

[Raikel]: Because her husband helped me get out.

[Rolando]: Raikel took the necessary steps and in July of that same year, he also left for Ecuador, leaving his three children behind.

Once in Ecuador, Yoannelis, Raikel and Yoandra set out to earn a living how they could. Yoannelis sold candy in a cafeteria. Raikel sold Cuban pastries on the street in Quito. Yoandra cared for children.  

But their lives were rather precarious and they were about to become even more complicated.  


[Journalist]: The main gateway to Central America, Ecuador, announced that it will impose entry visas…
[Journalist]: After December 1st you will need a visa in order to travel to Ecuador.

[Journalist]: It’s a measure aimed at reducing the influx of thousands of Cubans beginning a large-scale odyssey over land…

[Rolando]: According to the government of Ecuador, this new restriction was put in place in order to impede the traffic of illegal immigrants.

Raikel, Yoannelis and Yoandra, like thousands of other Cubans in the country, feared that they would be deported back to Cuba, where they would have to start from zero. Especially those who sold everything, including their houses.

Yoandra and her son had already been in Ecuador for more than a year. She wanted to get a resident’s permit, so she went to the immigration office to go through the process.

[Yoandra]: The same day I was at migration… he picked up and left.

[Rolando]: She’s referring to her husband. In other words, he abandoned her that day. He left with another woman whom he had met months prior.

So Yoandra was left with a 4 year old son in a country that wasn’t her own. At least she had her brother Raikel and her friend Yoannelis.

But none of them had a steady job. One day in January, 2016, Raikel said to his sister:

[Raikel]: I said: “Tomorrow. Pack your cheles. We’re leaving”. ”No, you’re crazy. You’re crazy”. ”I’m telling you pack your cheles”…  

[Rolando]: Their cheles, in other words, their bags.

[Raikel]: Leaving was a spur of the moment thing. Not even Yoandra knew. Because that’s how I am… I’m crazy.

[Rolando]: That was it. In a flash.

[Raikel]: “I’m telling you to pack up your things. We’re leaving. We can’t stay here.”

[Rolando]: Raikel and Yoandra sold everything they had in Quito and asked their mother to loan them some money. She had immigrated to Madrid a few years earlier.  They got together around 5 thousand dollars between the two of them.  

Yoandra couldn’t imagine the road ahead of them. But she had to explain it to her son, Arián, somehow.

[Yoandra]: Well my idea for Arián was to tell him that we were moving, that we were going to go on a trip, an excursion. That was all I could come up with. For him, well…children don’t have a sense of danger, and I didn’t want this to affect him so much.

[Rolando]: Three days after having made the decision, they left Ecuador with a group of Cubans.

The plan: walk, take buses, boats, planes, whatever it took to first make it to Colombia, then Panama, followed by Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and from there Mexico to cross the border and finally arrive in the United States.

But without documents, well… nothing’s that simple.

[Raikel]: Then from Ecuador, when you leave Ecuador… Now…now you’re undocumented. You’re undocumented, so…so if something happens to you: “Oh well, you left Cuba, man, if you die, well, it’s…it’s no big deal, there’s no…”. For example, one thing they’re going to say is: “Where is the Cuban who left here? What do I care if he’s alive or dead?”. You understand? When you leave, your life is hanging by a thread.

[Rolando]: In April 2016, a few month after the siblings and the boy started their journey, Yoannelis had gotten together enough money to leave for Ecuador. According to her calculations, what she had would be enough to hire coyotes to take her from Colombia to Panama. From there she didn’t know exactly what she was going to do, but still she joined a group of other Cubans who were leaving.

But she barely made it across the Colombian border before two armed men in uniform stopped her.

[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.”

[Rolando]: She had no other choice but to give them all the money they were carrying.

[Yoannelis]: What were we going to do? No, you give them the money or they shoot you. If I hadn’t given it to them, they would have killed me. What was I going to do?

[Rolando]: Meanwhile, 11 days after having left Quito, Raikel, Yoandra and her son Arián took a bus to the coastal town of Turbo, Colombia. The authorities in the area gave them the letter of safe-passage allowing them to cross the border with Panama. With that document in hand, they took a boat across the Gulf of Urabá to the town of Puerto Obaldía in Panama. From there, the Panamanian border patrol gave them a permit to enter the country as long as they didn’t stay and continued on their way.

Puerto Obaldía is a transitory town, bordered on three sides by one of the most imposing and dense rain forests in Latin America: the Darién Gap.

But for them, the rain forest wasn’t a problem because they had another plan.

[Raikel]: We took a plane in Obaldía. We knew that ahead of time, you know, things were moving along. And we knew there was a plane that was leaving, that there was a regular flight, that there was a charter flight.

[Rolando]: It was a direct flight to Panama City and it cost about $200. They thought it was going to be a short stay in Puerto Obaldía. But there they found thousands of migrants like them. It was a bottleneck for Cubans who were also coming from Ecuador.  And all of them were waiting for the same plane.

They figured that there was a daily flight, but once they were there, Raikel and Yoandra learned that was not the case. Actually, the plane only left once a month. And there was no guarantee that they could take the next flight. And with every missed flight, their desperation grew. Some of them got tired of waiting and went through the forest on foot.

Raikel and Yoandra decided to wait, mostly because they were traveling with Arián. But days turned into weeks.

[Raikel]: We had been in Obaldía for a month. And so a month there was equal to…it was same as spending all of the money you had on you.  

[Rolando]: For example, one meal cost $5 US dollars, a small fortune for these immigrants who were on a very tight budget.

[Raikel]: You need to give a little boy breakfast, and I don’t have the heart to see my sister and the boy go without food.  

[Rolando]: And every time they thought they could leave on the next plane…

[Raikel]: No, there are no more flights. You need to wait a month.

[Rolando]: It was an impossible situation.

[Yoandra]: When your son gets up and… and says to you, “mom, I’m hungry”…, and you don’t have anything to give him… You feel desperate. There comes a time you don’t know what to do, you don’t know where to go, what to do, what to take, what to do. It’s hard.

[Rolando]: They were running out of money with each passing day and they only saw one option left:

[Yoandra]: So that’s why we decided to go through the rain forest.

[Rolando]: In the month and a half they spent in Puerto Obaldía, Raikel had become friends with on the border guards from Panama. And when Raikel told him they were going to go into the rain forest, the guard said:

[Raikel]: “Man, when I’m down here in Obaldía, I’m fine. When they send me to patrol the top of the hill, I want to disappear from the face of the Earth.” The Darién jungle is the most hostile rain forest on planet Earth. Even more so than the Amazon.  

[Rolando]: But they couldn’t take it anymore. So when Raikel’s guard friend asked him if he knew what he was getting into, Raikel answered:

[Raikel]: “I have to do it, brother. I can’t stay here. I can’t lose more time”.  

And he told me, “bring me a backpack.” And he filled the pack with food: cans of meat, milk for the boy…

[Rolando]: And with that, they set out.

In order to make the journey through the jungle, a group of 40 Cubans got together and paid a guide $30 US dollars a head.  And they quickly realized that what they had been told about the jungle was true.

A few hours after they started their journey they came up against their first obstacle.

[Raikel]: The first hill we climbed was called “Loma del Ángel” the Angel Mound, according to the guides who knew the area, because there are clouds girding the middle of the hill. The hill is nearly 2 thousand kilometers tall… I mean, 2 kilometers. Almost 2 thousand meters.  

[Rolando]: According to their calculations, between the humidity and tropical heat, it took them more than 3 hours to climb the hill.  Once they made it to the top, Raikel shot a video with his cell phone. In it you can see Arián sitting at Yoandra’s feet.  Everyone in the group looks sweaty and exhausted.


[Raikel]: We’re on top of the hill. There, wave to the camera [laughs]. There. Let me see your shoes, your shoes. Wait, wait, wait. There.

[Rolando]: The shoes are completely covered in mud. You can tell it was a difficult ascent, and out from all of the adult’s long faces, there comes Arián smiling ear to ear, waving at the camera.


[Raikel]: An effort, a sacrifice to make it to the United States. And look at this…  

[OTHER TRAVELER]: At this altitude…

[Raikel]: Imagine it, at this altitude we’re above the clouds.  

[Rolando]: And that was just the start, they still had 3 days in the rain forest ahead of them.

The route through the Darién Gap is so difficult that the Pan-American Highway, which goes from the Southern tip of Argentina up to Alaska, is only broken up by one 100 km stretch of tropical forest.

Every day was a struggle. Venomous snakes, spiders, wildcats, jaguars, crocodiles… The jungle was full of dangers and they weren’t ready to face them, because they didn’t even have something as simple as bug spray.

They made their way through the mud and underbrush with a machete. The narrow paths were lined with steep drop-offs and virgin white water rivers.  

But the threats didn’t just come from the animals and the environment. There were armed men linked to narcotics and contraband trafficking in the area. Not all of the guides could be trusted. And there were others who took advantage of the migrants.

Meanwhile, Yoannelis managed to arrive in Puerto Obaldía in Panama and from there she decided to go through the jungle. And a few days after entering the rain forest, her group ran into a band of thieves. For the second time, she was assaulted and lost everything.

[Yoannelis]: And they left me without clothes, they took my clothes. They stole everything from me. They left us there with nothing. The men were barefoot… it was terrible. Without watches, with nothing, with nothing.

[Rolando]: Yoandra and Raikel couldn’t go as fast as the others because they had Arián. With each stretch of jungle, more and more people were left behind. Until finally they fell behind.

[Yoandra]: It was hard to live through that, very hard.

[Rolando]: For Yoandra, this was one of the most difficult moments in the journey.

[Raikel]: We were on the trail for nearly 4 days and we didn’t have any food.

[Rolando]: They were lost. They went in circles through the forest and along the way they ran into a man from India.  

[Yoandra]: We found him on the trail.  He had gotten separated from his group because his foot was injured. He couldn’t walk as fast as the others so he was…was left alone. And then he ran into us.

[Rolando]: Darién is an international migratory route that is very heavily traveled. In the rain forest there were people from Asia, several African countries, Eastern Europe, and a lot of people from Haiti.

They continued on the path together and the Indian man was kind enough to share the little rice he had with him in his bag with them.

[Yoandra]: He just took refuge there with us. He camped with us that night. But the next day he had to stay back. We got back on the trail again very, very early when it was just getting light out, but he started to fall behind. We stayed with him, but there was a moment when we had to leave him.

[Rolando]: They had found another group that was traveling with a guide. And they had started following them, but the Indian man couldn’t keep up with them.  

[Raikel]: And I looked around, I’m traveling with my sister, I’m traveling with a child. What am I supposed to do? I can’t stay. And I wasn’t strong enough to carry him either. No.

[Rolando]: They wanted to help him, but they couldn’t…

[Yoandra]: It was really difficult to have to leave that man behind. It’s really hard, really hard.

[Raikel]: It took the spirit out of me and my eyes even started to water. I said: “Yoa, it’s him or us, what are we going to do? We have the boy”. And we had to leave him there. We had to leave him there.

[Yoandra]: He couldn’t walk anymore.

[Rolando]: They had been walking for 5 days and they had to scale another mountain. They call it “Adiós Mi Pueblo”, or “Goodbye, My People”, and Raikel remembers that it was even more difficult than the first hill.

[Raikel]: Later the guide told us that they call it “Adiós Mi Pueblo” because of how many people had been killed on that pass.  The pass was nearly 500 meters tall.

[Yoandra]: It was a rocky outcropping.  

[Raikel]:  A rocky outcropping that was no wider than… a foot and a half.  

[Rolando]: He remembers that it was a sheer and narrow path, with a 500 meter drop below. The Cubans in the group had to make a human chain and pass Arián from person to person. That was how they managed to cross.  They were all exhausted in the end, Arián most of all. He had shown signs that he couldn’t take it anymore.

[Yoandra]: And there was a moment when I couldn’t take it anymore, but I started singing, even though I couldn’t even speak… but I started to sing.  Nursery rhymes.   

[Rolando]: The song “the little chickens” came to mind: “The little chickens go cluck, cluck, cluck”…

[Yoandra]: The song normally goes: “The little chickens go cluck, cluck, cluck.” But then, because I was so exhausted, so fatigued, I thought…I’m going to say, “to hell” [laughs].

[Rolando]: The little chickens go to hell. And this little gesture gave him just enough strength to keep going.

[Yoandra]: And when we went down the… the hill which was covered in mud, what he did was laugh and he said, “mom, I’m skating!”. That was what he said to me.  Because you couldn’t walk in the mud. You didn’t walk down. You slid down.

[Rolando]: Even though the plan was to cross jungle in 4 days, it actually took 7.

They slept out in the elements, and every day that went by they had to get rid of the few things they had in their packs. They lived off the land.

[Raikel]: I had to eat unripe avocados from a bush. That was all there was. And there was nothing else. A little farther ahead we came across a mandarin tree. I climbed up the tree and the ants were eating me, my sister knows, they were eating me. I climbed up the tree and shook it and when I shook it all of the ants fell on me. Well they ate me up, but I shook to tree and took the mandarins.

[Rolando]: When they finally made it out of the jungle, they arrived in a town called Bajo Chiquito. There they were cared for by humanitarian groups. There were many pregnant women, infants and children like Arián who had just traversed Darién.

Yoannelis’ group also got lost in the woods. It took them 6 days to make it where Raikel, Yoandra and Arián were. Yoannelis was dehydrated, hungry and full of uncertainty about what was to come.

When she told me this, I could tell from her voice that it was uncomfortable for her to remember those days.

[Yoannelis]: And it’s…it’s very hard. It really is very hard.  It’s hard.  I…I made it to this country and my hair was falling out from the stress. Don’t think what I went through was easy.

[Rolando]: She was in a line, where they were giving out food to people who had come out of the jungle, when she ran into her friend Yoandra. Happy to see each other again, they decided to continue on their journey together.

But there was one problem…

[Yoannelis]: Because there were really a lot of us Cubans there, there was really nowhere for us to go.

[Rolando]: In other words, nowhere for them to settle in. The migration authorities gave out cots so the Cubans who came out of the forest could sleep out in the open.

But as we said before, there weren’t just Cubans there.

[Yoannelis]: There were Hindus, there were… Africans. You name it. You see? Then, they gave us a place to stay there, and… and… and… they told us to go to different places because the Africans had one process and the Cubans had another.

[Rolando]: During the passage through Darién, all of the migrants had been the same. But now, they were on the other side, and Cubans received preferential treatment.  

While the migrants from other countries were temporarily detained and possibly deported, the Cubans were put under the protection of the State of Panama.

[Daniel]: And that’s a benefit that no other migrant had. After the break, we’ll explore what it means to be a privileged migrant and how you can see that reflected in the story of Cubans like Yoandra, Raikel, Yoannelis and Arián.

We’ll be right back.

[Kelly McEvers, host Embedded]: Hey, I’m Kelly McEvers, and Embedded is back. President Donald Trump has no record of public service, but he does have a record in business and on TV. In our latest round of stories we introduce you to the people who were there as he build an empire and a name. Listen on the NPR One App or wherever you get your podcasts.

[Daniel]: Before the break we were listening to the story of 4 Cubans who traversed one of the most difficult jungles in the world with the hope of making it to the United States. Since 2015, around 40 thousand Cubans have gone through Panama on their way to their final destination, and a good portion of them did it traveling through the Darién Pass.

And in order to put this journey in context, it is important to remember that Cuba is only 90 miles from the state of Florida.

Even so, hundreds of thousands of Cubans have opted to take the long way through South and Central America. And to understand why we have to look back to the ‘90s.      

At that time, Cuba was in the midst of what’s known as the “Special period.” The Soviet Union fell, the Cold War was over and so was the economic support the Soviets were giving the island. They were difficult years.  


[Fidel Castro]: Cuba and the Cuban Revolution continue to fight and continue to resist!

[Daniel]: Everything was scarce. Many Cubans went hungry and were desperate. In a Danish public television report made in 1994, they interviewed several Cubans who decided to leave the country. Cubans like this man:


[Rafter] Cubans aren’t asking for luxury, Cubans are asking for the basics: toothpaste, toothbrushes…

[Daniel]: The interviewee is a young man who looks very thin, even malnourished. They are interviewing him in front of the sea. Around him dozens of Cubans set out on the water in homemade boats, made with old wood and tires tied together with ropes.


[Rafter] The basics. Which we don’t have in this country.  We don’t have them.  Not just because of the American embargo, that’s part of it, but also because of our own block that we have inside, from the system. I doesn’t work. That’s the truth.

[Daniel]: The “Special Period” crisis was coming to its most difficult moment. More than 35 thousand Cubans like him we taking to the sea in the summer of 1994.  The ones who tried to take this route were known as balseros –rafters– and they tried make it to the United States because that government allowed them to enter legally and become permanent residents one year after arriving.  

Leaving by sea was illegal, of course, but there were too many rafters setting out at the same time. So many that Fidel Castro himself opened the doors for them.


[Fidel Castro]: We feel the responsibility to instruct the border guards not to impede any vessel that may want to leave.  

[Daniel]: And with that decision, Castro achieved two goals: doing away with a social problem and creating a humanitarian crisis for his constant enemy: the United States.  


[Bill Clinton]: We have also kept the pressure on Cuba by maintaining a tough embargo policy.

[Daniel]: In order to reduce the uncontrolled entry of so many Cubans to Florida, president Bill Clinton decreed in ‘95 that all of the rafts intercepted at sea would be returned to Cuba. But the ones that manage to set foot on US soil would be able to stay.  For that reason, this decree came to be known as the “Dry feet/wet feet” policy.  

Since 1996, more than 650 thousand Cuban have been admitted to the United States this way.  

But another 40 thousand rafters have been sent back to Cuba once they were intercepted by the US Coast Guard. And on top of that, it’s estimated that at least 15 thousand Cubans have drowned in the attempt.

But in December 2014, everything changed. President Obama announced that a new era of diplomatic relations with Cuba was beginning:


[Barack Obama]: Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.

[Daniel]: And the Cuban president, Raúl Castro, made his own announcement at the same time.


[Raúl Castro]: President Obama’s decision deserves the respect and recognition of our people.

[Daniel]: And this is just the start. Barack Obama would go to the island in March of 2015. And then…


[Journalist]: On July 20th the United State and Cuba will reopen their embassies.

[Journalist] This puts an end to a 54 year diplomatic break with Cuba.

[Journalist] The countries are formally establishing relations.

[Daniel]: And although news reports showed that many Cubans took the news optimistically…


[A Cuban man] This is right for them and right for us.

[Daniel]: There were also many who upon hearing the news thought their privileged status as migrants could end at any moment.

And a new exodus began.    


[Journalist]: Illegal travel through Latin American countries by Cubans hoping to reach US soil is not stopping.  

[Daniel]: And they weren’t entering by sea any longer, but rather by land. That was the surest way to set a dry foot on US soil and be able to enter legally.  


[Journalist]: Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala…  

[Daniel]: After 2014, this was the route that Cubans like Raikel, Yoandra and Yoannelis tried to take. It was hard, yes, and risky, but they also had the guarantee that if they made it to Mexico, they could enter the US. A guarantee that no migrant who is not Cuban has.  

So, that’s the context. And now let’s get back to the story Rolando was telling.

[Rolando]: A few days after having gotten out of the forest, they bused the Cuban migrants to the other side of Panama, to a town on the border of Costa Rica called Paso Canoas. There the Panamanian authorities put them up in a shelter called El Bon.

[Raikel]: No, the conditions… The conditions at El Bon, imagine there were nearly 3 thousand Cubans inside of a warehouse, and we’re talking about Panama which has a rather tropical, hot climate. It was as hot as hell.

[Rolando]: And it was in El Bon that more obstacles started to appear. There were rumors that the Central American borders were closing. And they were.

The first country was Nicaragua, which closed its borders in November of 2015. Then came Guatemala, which announced that it wouldn’t let any Cuban migrants through.

Next was Belize. And then Costa Rica. The Costa Rican government sent its immigration police to the Panamanian border to stop Cubans who were trying to enter the country –and they ran the risk of being deported.

Certainly, the flow of Cubans who had arrived in Panama between 2014 and 2016 took the country by surprise. The neighboring countries closing their borders created another bottleneck for Cubans arriving in Panama every day.  Their resources and humanitarian services weren’t enough. And finally Panama had to cut off the flow of migrants who were coming on their way north.

Meanwhile, at the shelter where they found themselves stranded, some Cubans who were traveling with children received help from neighboring Panamanians. One of them was Lucy Córdoba, an activist who visited El Bon to help the children of migrants. They called her “the teacher” and Arián took to her right away.

[Yoannelis]: Yes, because he was always playing in the area, the day Lucy came he said that…that the teacher had come, a teacher.

[Rolando]: Lucy organized the opening of a few classrooms where the children could read, write, and draw.  

[Lucy Córdoba]: And that was the mission.  

[Rolando]: This is Lucy.

[Lucy]: Getting the children to laugh and play. Taking them out of that… that sadness. Because the truth is it was a great sadness. That anguish, that uncertainty of not knowing if they were going to move on or not.

[Rolando]: Something had to be done with the thousands of Cubans that were stuck in Panama. The most obvious solution was for them to leave, to continue the journey north. All of the Central American countries wanted the same thing: To get rid of the problem.

One by one, the Central American governments sought their own solutions to the crisis. But the majority of Cuban migrants were stranded in Costa Rica and Panama. And that is why both countries reached an agreement with the Mexican government that allowed them to make an air bridge to a city near the US border.

But the tickets from Panama to Mexico cost $800 US dollars and Raikel, Yoandra and Yoannelis barely had $100 between the 3 of them. They were very close to making it to their destination but they didn’t know if they were going to be able to leave Panama and take advantage of this opportunity.

Raikel took charge.

[Raikel]: And two days earlier I tell her: “Hey, relax, we’re going to figure this out. And we did. I get the idea to me to call my uncle, my mom’s first cousin, who lives in Miami.

[Rolando]: And they did it. They got the money.  Now they just needed to wait for the money to arrive. There were thousands of Cubans waiting for the same thing. And the only Western Union in the nearest city didn’t have enough money. They ran out of money and the line went on for days. Raikel, Yoandra and Yoannelis had to sleep on the street in order to be able to get in line first thing in the morning. And that’s where Lucy, the activist who helped the children at El Bon, came in.

[Lucy]: And I see Arián wearing these yellow pants. And they told me they were waiting for money at the Western Union. The 4 of them where going to sleep outside that day.

[Rolando]: Lucy offered to take Arián on a walk to distract him a little.

[Lucy]: We went to eat, we went to run a few errands. And well, Arián was a boy who always behaved himself very well and had a lot of charisma. A noble child. Very noble.

[Rolando]: What started as an ordinary walk turned into an invitation for the four of them to stay at her house. And that’s what they did; for the first time in months they slept happily in a comfortable home.

On May 13th, 2016 Yoannelis, Yoandra, Raikel and Arián could finally get on a plane headed to Mexico. It had been 4 months since they had left Ecuador.

[Yoandra]: And my last words were, I turned to my brother and… And I said, “Thank you so much Panama.” It was really very emotional. Because I was very grateful but, as I said, I also knew that a lot of people were left behind…who wouldn’t be as lucky as us. And that is really hard.

[Rolando]: They landed in Juárez, Mexico. The next day they were able to cross into the United States through El Paso, Texas, and they did it without incident.

On the US side of the border they gave them permission to enter the country. The process with the border agents lasted less than 24 hours.

[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.

[Rolando]: When the group of Cubans crossed the bridge toward the city of El Paso, with their little Cuban flags, something very unexpected happened…Something almost inexplicable if you understand anything about immigration in the US, about the rhetoric that’s used to talk about Latin American immigrants.

Raikel tells me that people in passing cars rolled down their windows and shouted:

[Raikel]: “Welcome, welcome, welcome. Cuba, welcome, welcome. You made it, welcome. You’re free. You’re free,” that’s what they said.

[Rolando]: I lived near that bridge in El Paso for years and, believe me, that kind of reception is not normal.

A few months later in August, 2016, Yannelis, Raikel, Yoandra and Arián ended up in a town in Kansas called Emporia, nearly in the center of the United States. After having tried to start a new life in Miami, Raikel’s uncle recommended that they move to Emporia where it’s more peaceful and the cost of living isn’t as high.

And that was where I met them last July when I visited them at their home. And I wasn’t alone. I was with someone very important to them.

[Lucy]: It’s been so long!

[Yoandra]: Oh my God.

[Lucy]: [laughs] You didn’t know? You look just the same, you look great, how pretty.

[Yoandra]: Thank you, my love, and you look the same as always.  

[Lucy]: No, a little chubbier.

[Rolando]: Lucy Córdoba, the Panamanian woman who had opened her home to them.

When the time came to see Arián, they went inside, opened the door to his room, and like any child his age –Arián is 7 now– he was glued to the TV.

[Arián]: Hello.

[Lucy]: Do you know who I am.

[Raikel]: I think he doesn’t remember.

[Yoandra]: He remembers.

[Raikel]: No, he doesn’t remember. Look who’s here.

[Lucy]: Come over here and give me a hug.

[Raikel]: Lucy.

[Arián]: Lucy?

[Raikel]: See? He doesn’t remember.

[Arián]: Lucy!

[Lucy]: My love, how are you!

[Rolando]: In Emporia the 3 adults work in a carpenter’s workshop where they make $16 an hour. It’s more than what they earned in Cuba in a month.  

And there are many Latinos there, mostly Mexicans and Salvadorans. I asked Raikel if he ever spoke with them about why Cubans could enter the United States so easily. He told me he did.

[Raikel]: And every once in awhile the topic comes up.

[Rolando]: Raikel explained to me that his Latino co-workers sometimes throw in his face the fact that he and other Cubans have permission to enter and work, while they, who have been there for years, have to live as undocumented immigrants.

[Raikel]: And I tell them, “it’s not my fault.” Because I know that there are people who don’t care but there are some that I know are bothered by it. You understand?  But what they don’t understand is that you have to give it a rest with me. If I don’t…I have my way of thinking. I have my way of looking at life.  You don’t know what life was like for me in my country. You understand? Because you’re from an underdeveloped country like mine, but you make $6 a day, no one in Cuba makes that. In Cuba it’s $10 a month.

[Rolando]: For Raikel it was very clear: if they had the same privilege, there’s no question they would do the same thing.

In January, 2017…


[Journalist]: Very well. It has been reported within the last hour that Barack Obama will do away with the policy known as “Dry feet/wet feet.”   

[Journalist]: This afternoon the White House announced that the change to the “Dry feet/wet feet” policy will take effect immediately.  

[Journalist]: And it would mandate immediate repatriation of rafters to the island, even those who manage to set foot on US soil. In other words, even when they have dry feet.

[Rolando]: Overnight, Cubans lost the privilege of entry that they had had since the 90s.  

Since Obama made the announcement, Raikel tells me that he doesn’t have the same arguments with his Latino co-workers at the workshop. After all, now Cubans are just like any other migrant.

[Daniel]:  More than 100 thousand Cubans entered the United States between 2014 and 2016. The majority of them had a similar journey to what we just heard. And almost all of them got to stay. In that same period, more than 250 thousand Mexicans and Central Americans were deported at the border.

But of course, not all Cubans made it to the United States in time. Thousand were in the middle of their journey when Obama repealed “Dry feet/Wet feet.”


In the second part of this series on the new era of Cuban immigration, we’re following the story of those who were still on their way and what they’re doing now that the U.S. has closed its doors.

This story was made possible in part thanks to the support from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

This episode is part of a series reported in collaboration with 14ymedio and El Nuevo Herald.

Special thanks for Alejandro González and Mario Pentón from 14ymedio, and José Iglesias and Nancy SanMartín from the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Rolando Arrieta is a journalist with NPR. He lives in Washington D.C.  This story was produced by Luis Trelles and edited by Camila Segura and me. Mixing and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri. Ana Prieto did the 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 out editorial intern and Andrea Betanzos is the program coordinator. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.

Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.

Learn more about this Story and Radio Ambulante on our website: Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.


Luis Trelles & Rolando Arrieta

Cuba/Panama/United States


Camila Segura & Daniel Alarcón

Andrés Azpiri

Laura Pérez