The recent Cuban migratory wave, which swelled after the economic crisis, aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic and by the increase in police repression after the widespread protests on June 11, also catalyzed family separation in much more tragic terms; as a result of it, the right to shared custody of minor children has become a bargaining chip, in some cases, of people desperate to flee the island.
After years of amicable relations between Humberto Montenegro and the mother of his ten-year-old son, now they are at loggerheads after the mother's current partner convinced her to undertake a migration route through Nicaragua.
"I understand both things: that she wants to leave the country, and that she doesn't want to separate from her son. But I'm totally opposed to exposing my son to all the dangers that this journey entails, of which we're all well aware," says Montenegro, the administrator of a small private cafeteria.
His son's mother filed a lawsuit to deprive him of his rights as a father, alleging that he had never fulfilled his financial support obligations towards his son.
"I never needed any proof, just as I never had the slightest reason to distrust her in the five years we've been divorced. But she has resorted to initiating a process like this, behind my back, and, to top it all off, falsifying everything. She's pulled the rug out from under me … leaving me embittered, deprived of my rights as a father, and distanced from my son. And, if she manages to get away with this, there's the anxiety I'll suffer during the journey," says Montenegro, adding that, in Cuba, "for decades, there's been no justice for anyone, and far less when you're a divorced father and the mother of your son could be an actress, and she's accompanied by two corrupt lawyers."
Parents who reside in foreign countries struggle to have any say in decisions about their children setting out on migration routes fraught with risks of all kinds. Perhaps the case of Alain Castillo, for the moment, is not that dramatic, but the price he pays is daily worry, not knowing whether the desperation of his son's mother could mean that he ends up deprived of his rights as a father.
"I need to know at what age children can decide to emigrate for themselves. My son is 14 years old. His mother has contacted me to ask for my consent, for his passport application. But I don't think it's appropriate for my son, as things stand, to take any migratory route," says Castillo. Although thus far he has engaged in a "tense" but cordial dialogue with the mother, he fears that the matter could go south, and he could be stripped of his legitimate right to allow or disallow his son from travelling on a journey full of all kinds of dangers.
"I don't want my son crossing borders without the slightest guarantee of anything. I've lost friends on those journeys. I myself had to cross nine countries, so I know all the ins and outs of it, and the risks involved. I've talked with my son a lot about this situation, and for now he's all right with it, and understands," added Castillo, who, punctually, every month, sends remittances to meet his financial support obligations. In the event of a lawsuit, however, he would not have any way to prove this with any official document.
Under Cuba's migration laws, Cuban citizens residing in the country, when applying for a passport, must comply with the following requirements: present an identity card or children's card, along with a certificate of consent to obtain a passport and/or to leave the country, formalized before a notary public, endorsed by the parents or corresponding legal representatives of minors under 18 years of age.
Lawyers consulted confirmed that if one of the parents does not consent to authorize a minor's departure from the country, a judicial procedure is initiated by the person concerned in this decision, whether it be the mother or father, the legal representative of the minor, or the public attorney, if he or she does not have a legal representative. Both parents must attend, as this involves a conflict between the parental authorities. In this case the parent who wishes to process the passport, and for their child to travel, seeks to be given parental authority to do so without the consent of the parent who refuses.
In the event that one of the parents resides abroad, any consent must be processed with the official at the Cuban consulate in the country where one resides.
Although normally both parents agree to provide their consent, without conflicts of any kind, there are more than a few cases in which minors are bargaining chips for one of the parents. Eliot San Martín, the father of an 11-year-old boy, has had to travel to the island more than four times to try to convince his son's mother and to start the process from Cuba rather than from his current country of residence.
"Almost since he was born, my son was raised by his maternal grandparents. They themselves have encouraged me to take him with me, because his mother, who does not even live with them, doesn't take care of him. Though I've given them all they need, they've explained to me that they're now too old and feeble," says San Martín. He added that the social assistance and justice mechanisms barely work, "or work with bribes." He believes that a serious investigation could settle the matter, as it would show "the mother of my son has shown no interest, for years, in parenting the child."
"She doesn't care if my son emigrates on a dangerous migration route, whether it is safe. I do. She does care about me buying her a house and leaving her, as collateral, $5,000. Only in this way, she says, will she give her consent for me to take him. I hope that the reform of the Family Code will include formal and coherent investigations. There are more than enough CDR (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) in Cuba for cases where one of the parents uses their own son as an asset."
He concluded: "If anyone thinks that there aren't many parents affected by these dilemmas, they can survey the notaries in Havana, and they'll tell you how many cases like these are on their agendas."