Cuba Culture

Family ties make Cuba and US best of enemies

Posted July 23, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Culture.

The Guardian

Giles Tremlett ends his Havana series with a report on Miami-based exiles and those they left behind

At terminal two of Havana’s Jose Marti airport the daily invasion of the revolutionary republic by Miami Cubans is under way. Weighed down by gold chains, wearing “I love NY” caps or struggling to steer trolleys piled high with suitcases and electronic goods, passengers from the first of three afternoon flights from Miami are greeted with kisses and tears of joy by relatives.

“I haven’t seen my mother since she emigrated four years ago. I’m a bit nervous,” admitted 19-year-old Brenda Saranova as she waited among the crush of people squeezed against the railings outside the terminal.

Two more Miami flights arrived at the terminal, a shed-like building whose rudimentary appearance contrasts with the spacious terminal three, which welcomes tourists from the rest of the world during the morning.

Another flight of Cuban Americans was due from New York in the afternoon. In all, more than 120,000 of them will make the trip home for a three-week stay with their families this year.

They will bring with them the typical returning migrants’ gifts of electronic goods and hard cash, in this case the US dollars that fuel one of Cuba’s two parallel economies.

The relationship between 11 million Cubans and the 650,000 Cubans on the Miami-Dade county census is, perhaps, the greatest of all the many Cuban paradoxes.

Publicly they live in a state of perpetual confrontation, one lot hatching plots to overthrow Fidel Castro, the other lot in a constant state of vigilance for the invaders they believe may be coming.

Miami is home to the Cuban American National Foundation, the leading critic of the Castro regime. It is also where the US government-owned Radio Marti is based and is a recruiting ground for shadowy armed groups such as Alpha 66. From there the plans were made for the CIA-backed invasion of the Bay of Pigs, the failed attempt to overthrow President Castro in 1961.

On Miami’s rightwing radio stations and at political gatherings there is often pressure for a strengthening of the 40-year-old trade embargo that has, so far, spectacularly failed to produce the overthrow of Mr Castro.

It is a community which now boasts a leading representative in the Bush administration in the form of the secretary of housing and urban development, Mel Martinez, who lobbied to keep six-year-old Elian Gonzalez in the US after his mother died trying to get to Florida.

Miami hates Havana, Havana hates Miami and never the two shall meet - or that is what most people believe.

In reality, however, many Cuban Americans slip over frequently, disappear from sight in their family homes once they are in Cuba and provide the dollars - either during their visits or by Western Union money transfers - that almost all Cubans seek to improve their lives.

For Cuba, to a great degree, lives off Miami. As always, figures for receipts from abroad are hard to find, but the money sent home is estimated to be up to $800m (500m) a year. That makes it a greater source of wealth than the sugar harvest and second only to that other provider of foreign currency, tourism.

Hiram, waiting at the airport for family friends, spins puns about the health of the Castro regime. “They say that to survive in Cuba you need fe [faith] - that stands for familia en el extranjero [family abroad],” he says.

Restrictions on who can come are obviously not tight. Among those heading off after their three-week stay at home was 72-year-old Pasqual Gonzalez.

“I was in prison here for five years for trying to overthrow Fidel,” he admits cheerily. “I’ve been back to see my daughter and her family. I miss her, she is my life, but I’ve never felt better.

“I weighed 134 lb when I left and now I weigh 193,” he says, clasping his stomach happily.

The only restrictions on how much money they can bring through are written by the US government: $1,200 a year per person can go by Western Union, another $3,000 can be taken on a flight - though nobody appears to check.

Under the terms of the US embargo on Cuba, scheduled airlines are not allowed to fly here. But charter aircraft can, though only Cuban Americans are meant to travel on them.

The Cuban Americans are a mix. There are brash ones who strut around wearing cowboy hats and gold chains, and others who, apart from being a few pounds fatter, are indistinguishable from the people waiting for them.

Some demand the most expensive rental cars, others are rumoured to hire their jewellery from a Miami pawn shop. “Most just go and spend time with their families,” explained one government official.

Many have been separated from relatives since 1994 when, faced with an economy crumbling in the wake of the fall of the iron-curtain countries that had supported Cuba, thousands demanded the right to leave.

President Castro eventually gave the go-ahead, and a rickety flotilla of rafts and other vessels took some 30,000 people, the balseros, to Florida. The Clinton administration then agreed that up to 20,000 people a year could get visas to live and work in the US.

This is run on a lottery system though they are still processing the applications from the last lottery in 1998, when 540,00 people - one in 20 Cubans - applied.


Those who try to hijack boats to get to Florida received a warning yesterday that they would no longer be made welcome in the US as 12 people who took a government vessel and three hostages last week were returned to Cuba after authorities pledged they would not face the death penalty. It was a rare example of cooperation.

Driving past the mansions of Havana’s once opulent Miramar district, a taxi driver explains proudly how some of these beautiful houses, most owned by Americans or Cubans who fled to Miami, were given to the servants who had worked in them after the revolution.

On the cassette player Willy Chirino, a banned Cuban-American singer, is playing. “I love him, even if he is banned,” the taxi driver says as the words of La Jinetera, a song about the Havana girls who swap their bodies for tourist dollars, blasts out.

Florida is less than 100 miles away. Twiddling with the knobs of the radio you can drive along Havana’s streets and listen to the baseball commentary or the ranting neo-conservative talkshows of Miami radio stations.

Cuban Americans are not the only US citizens who make it to Cuba, despite the formal travel ban that is in place.

“I just wanted to see what it was like before Castro died,” explained a young lawyer from Santa Fe as she nursed a mojito in the Cafe Paris in Havana’s Old Town. Her trip, however, had been made via Toronto and she risked a $7,000 fine for coming.

Cuban authorities estimate that thousands like her make it here every year. Some are just curious, others are active embargo-busters, like the Pastors for Peace group who bring medicines to be distributed by the baptist church on K Street in the Varado neighbourhood of Havana.

At the end of the year the capital fills up with tour groups of wealthy American modern art collectors, heading for the Havana Biennial or the studios of well-known modern artists such as Toirac or Kcho. Under one of the loopholes in the embargo, cultural trips to Cuba are allowed - though there are moves to tighten even that one later this year.

Back at Jose Marti airport, however, not everybody is convinced that moving to Miami is the answer to their problems.

“Life is really hard there,” says Nancy Hernandez, as she waits for her daughter Lionela. “You have to work hard and pay for everything. It’s not like here, where the government looks after you. I wouldn’t go.”

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