With easing tensions between the two countries, many Americans are thrilled at the possibility of vacationing in Cuba. The Cubans themselves, however, are scrambling to leave. Nearly 15 years ago Marcos Lorenzo and his family, like so many others since the revolution in 1959, fled Cuba for their northern neighbor.
Lorenzo, a DePaul freshman, lived on the outskirts of Havana until he was 4 years old. In the country’s capital, grocery store shelves were bare and the technology outdated. Even though both of Lorenzo’s parents graduated from college and worked as engineers, they only made the equivalent of $40 a month.
“My house was a mess; it was falling apart. There were no windows — they were busted out,” Lorenzo said. “We had one room and we all slept there.”
Not much has changed on the communist island since then. In fact, Marcos’ mother Ingrid Lorenzo said it gets worse every year.
“It looks good on the news. It really bothers me that it’s cool to go to Cuba now, you know so many people have been to Cuba — Rihanna, Mick Jagger,” Mrs. Lorenzo said. “But to me it’s exploiting the whole thing. They don’t see the real side of what’s going on in Cuba.”
International action was triggered earlier this year when 8,000 Cuban migrants trying to reach America got stuck in Costa Rica near the Nicaraguan border. After many weeks of impasse, an agreement was reached that will allow the immigrants to come to the U.S., where Cubans are granted special refugee rights.
The second airlift of Cuban migrants stranded in Central America is scheduled for Feb. 4. Nearly 200 Cubans will be flown from Costa Rica to El Salvador. From there the migrants will continue by bus through Guatemala and Mexico until they reach the Texas border. Lorenzo made it to America by plane in 2001, but the journey wasn’t that easy for some of his relatives, who chose other means. The first members of his family who came to America, an uncle and grandmother, traveled by water in the ’90s.
“They literally made a raft out of some common objects around their house and they came here on a raft,” Lorenzo said. “They sort of planted the seed for the rest of my family.”
The decision to move to America was not an easy one for Mrs. Lorenzo.
“When I was growing up before I graduated from college my idea was ‘I’m never going to leave this country, this is my country. I have to stay here and fight,”’ she said. “But it gets to a point when you realize that you’re not going to go anywhere in your life. You’re not going to have any freedom.”
Growing up in Cuba, Mrs. Lorenzo said she was bombarded with propaganda from the government. She remembers hearing about all the crime and violence that happened in America.
“I was sitting on the plane and still questioning if I was making the right decision for my son,” Mrs. Lorenzo said. “And it blows my mind that that’s the power of the government. You don’t know any better. And they still do it today.”
As the U.S. Coast Guard buckled down on Cubans arriving by water, Lorenzo’s father opted for the land route.
“My parents always told me if someone asked me how I got here to tell them that I won the lottery,” Lorenzo said. “You win the lottery and you get to go. But the reality is that my parents (…) were like ‘No this is awful, I don’t want my kids to grow up here.’ So my dad saved up a lot of money.”
While Lorenzo and his mother stayed behind, Lorenzo’s father hired smugglers, a common yet dangerous method to get him through Mexico.
“They would get in a van and would just get as near the border as possible and they would open the doors and would all just run out,” Lorenzo said. “Fortunately my dad made it.”
Cubans who step foot on U.S. land are given refugee status, but those who travel by water are subjected to different policies.
The “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy allows any Cuban migrant who reaches U.S. soil to qualify for legal permanent residence, bypassing the routine immigration process. However, if a migrant is caught traveling by sea in the 90 miles between Cuba and Florida, they are sent back home. This rule is an amendment to the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA), a law enacted in 1966 in response to the influx of Cuban migrants after Fidel Castro’s revolution. The CAA allows Cubans who have lived in the U.S. for one year and one day to qualify for a Green Card and then citizenship. Spouses, children and parents of U.S. citizens can then be issued visas.
“The Cuban Adjustment Act was created to use as a political weapon against the Cuban Revolution by creating a brain drain in the country,” Felix Masud-Piloto, a DePaul professor and expert on U.S.-Cuba relations, said. “Many, if not most of the current migrants are young professionals seeking a better future.”
There was a 78 percent increase in the number of Cubans entering the U.S. in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center. This is widely believed to be the result of President Obama’s plan to ease diplomatic tensions and loosen the trade embargo with Cuba. This has set many Cubans into a panic, worried that improved relations will jeopardize their exclusive refugee status.
Immigration reform has continuously been a hot topic throughout the 2016 presidential election cycle. Earlier this month Republican candidate Marco Rubio criticized Obama’s policies towards Cuba. The Florida senator, a Cuban-American himself, calls the negotiations “one-sided” in favor of Cuba’s communist regime.
“We’re going to have to re-examine not just the Cuban Adjustment Act and make changes to it based on new realities but also the benefits people are qualifying for,” Rubio said.
After decades of an oppressive dictatorship and poor economic conditions, however, many Cubans are still weary and willing to risk their lives for better opportunities in America.
“If the U.S. eases tensions and drops the embargo they aren’t really going to have the same sympathy as they used to,” Lorenzo said.
Lorenzo still goes back to Havana almost every year to visit his family members who stayed. They often bring suitcases full of supplies like medicine and shoes. Food provokes vivid memories of the dismal conditions in Lorenzo’s homeland.
“Our definition of a decent meal was getting hot dogs every once in awhile. You don’t get steak, you don’t get chicken, you don’t get any of the stuff you get here. In fact, in Cuba the literal term for beef is meat of kings,” Lorenzo said.
The Lorenzo family has a tradition where they take relatives who have just arrived in the U.S. to Walmart so they can see the vast variety of products available to them.
“It’s not uncommon for them to start crying when they step inside and see all the merchandise,” Lorenzo said.
Lorenzo and his family are hopeful that things will start moving in the right direction, but they know it will not come easily.
“It’s one thing re-establishing ties with Cuba, but what I believe the Cuban people need is to abandon the old form of government or at least reform it dramatically because it is the government and the deep rooted socialism engraved in everyone’s minds that is causing most of the problems,” Lorenzo said.