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'Cuba will be a stopover, but not my country anymore'

People in Cuba are desperately looking for money to make it to Nicaragua.

La Habana
Cubans buying cell phones at the Mercado Oriental, Managua, Nicaragua.
Cubans buying cell phones at the Mercado Oriental, Managua, Nicaragua. La Prensa

Victor Luis is short over $600 to be able to buy a plane ticket to Nicaragua. He does not have a house of his own, since he lives with his parents, nor does he have a car or motorcycle that he can sell. He had never been involved in the sale of anything before, not even clothes or shoes, but a friend offered him the chance to participate in one of the most dangerous businesses in Cuba: the sale of drugs, specifically that known as piedra (crack).

"I know that I'm risking everything, even the lives of my parents, who are now very old; if they found out what I'm doing to escape from this country it would surely give them a heart attack," said Víctor Luis, a 26-year-old young man who, after graduating with a degree in Chemistry decided to work as a clerk in private businesses.

"For between 1,200 and 1,500 dollars you can get a ticket to Nicaragua without having to wait weeks, or even months, to get a direct flight, but you also need another 1,000 to survive there while you decide which migration route to continue that doesn't involve returning to Cuba. My friend didn't force me to sell piedra to come up with all the money, but rather the circumstances in this country, which gives young people no choice, after that vicious circle of promises that our parents believed. Crossing the Straits of La Florida in a raft, traversing the Darien jungle, or selling everything you have, is what the Revolution forces you to do. In my case, I'm obliged to sell my freedom in the form of narcotics," added Víctor Luis.

Although the buying and selling of houses on the Island is no longer illegal, this does not mean that it is a simple procedure. Cubans still prefer to carry out these transactions without the State's intervention, which usually appraises properties at values below their actual ones, and not in line with the cost of living in the country. Typically, properties are sold exclusively in US dollars or euros. The same applies to the sale of cars and motorcycles.

"When you sell your house, you're accepting you will not return to Cuba. No one who sells their house plans to return. They're leaving forever. Therefore, the current boom in the sale of houses is directly related to the stampede of Cubans leaving an island immersed in a debacle," explained Damián Valladares, a 35-year-old who has been in this situation for more than 10 years. His business has allowed him to save the dollars necessary for the migration route, "and keep my apartment, in case the route through Nicaragua doesn't work out for me and I have to go back."

"My aim is not to do business in Nicaragua, or to tour it, or to set down roots there, but rather to continue until I reach Mexico, the doorstep of the United States. It's not worth staying in Cuba for absolutely anything: to establish a business, to start a family, to be a revolutionary, or a dissident. It's simply a place incompatible with life itself. Cuba will be a stopover, but no longer my country. I pulled up the roots that could anchor me," Valladares explained.

On November 22 the Nicaraguan Ministry of the Interior approved a free visa for all Cubans who wish to migrate to the country. This news triggered an avalanche of Cubans at Copa Airlines' offices in the Miramar Business Center, in the town of Playa, trying to make reservations to the Central American country.

According to the Ministry of the Interior, in a press release signed by its vice minister, Luis Cañas, the purpose of exempting Cuban citizens from having to apply for a visa to enter the country was due to "the number of requests from fellow Cuban citizens with relatives in Nicaragua, and in order to promote commercial exchange, tourism and humanitarian family relations."

This opening up by Nicaragua's Government of Reconciliation and National Unity, backed by the Ministry of the Interior, comes in the midst of a tense, unprecedented atmosphere on the island after the events of July 11.

"Everything I have is for sale: my room, the refrigerator, the air conditioning, the scooter, the bicycle, the laptop, all my clothes and shoes, absolutely everything. I'll only return to Cuba in a coffin, if my family asks for it," said with evident anguish the young Havanan Alexandra Céspedes Guerra, who in recent years worked as a manicurist in the La Lisa neighborhood.

"I don't care whether this opening up by Nicaragua is part of an agreement with the Cuban government, and all the speculation and rumors about it. The only thing I know is that I have to flee this country, and if Nicaragua is one of those ways, that works for me. The only thing left for me in this country, to be able to eat and dress myself decently, was to prostitute myself. It doesn't matter if you're an honest person or a liar, or if you try to get by legally or illegally. What you see, and suffer, is intolerable. What kind of country is this when adolescents, for the simple act of saying what they feel, are savagely beaten and then slapped with prison terms twice their ages?"

"The only reason there aren't massive numbers of Cubans headed for Russia and Nicaragua is that not all Cubans have properties, motorcycles, cars or houses to sell. Cubans are now willing to sell their souls to get out of here. That is the reality in Cuba, let no one deceive you," said Céspedes Guerra.

After almost 20 years working at a grocery store, Alexis knows the margins necessary to make a profit in one of the most coveted sectors in Cuba: bodegas or any other food product establishment. But the severe shortages and stockouts that plague the island have also taken their toll on state stores, which have been forced to close their doors.

"I don't have a house of my own, or a car. Many believe that a bodeguero (grocery store worker) is a millionaire, or that working at one means you can buy it. A bodeguero lives on edge; he has to be on guard all the time, because he is in everyone's sights: the State's and the people's. The risk I have to take to buy a plane ticket to Nicaragua could cost me years in jail, in the worst case," he said.

The father of three children, two minors and a teenager, Alexis faces a risk: managing to scrape together the dollars he needs by "hustling" with controlled or rationed goods making up "basic goods basket."

"I can't continue to risk hustling to support my children, because bad luck will catch up with me, and from a prison I won't be able to help at all. The best way is to migrate and try your luck, even if that means the North Pole, though this entails a serious cost: leaving your family while you settle in a foreign country and until you can take your children. The dilemma is that the most coveted commodities, such as milk and coffee, are sorely lacking. Those who work in the department stores don’t dare get involved in any monkey business, as their hides are at stake," he explained.

"Today, a plane ticket to Nicaragua is the best investment a parent can make. The alternative is jail," Alexis concluded.

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