Cuban adjustment: Migrants talk of hope, hardship, and why they're
coming to America
Mike Clary Contact Reporter
Recently arrived Cuban migrants on why they, and so many others, are
leaving the island
As a barber in Havana, Duniesky Herrera Matamoros made about $20 a month
— barely enough to live on, he said, and not enough for a life. So like
so many others in Cuba, he made plans to leave.
On his first attempt to reach South Florida, Herrera came close enough
to see the beaches of Key West. "We got within 200 meters," he said of
that March 2011 raft trip across the Florida Straits. "I was right there
at the shore, but I was in the water and they got me."
Returned to the communist island by the U.S. Coast Guard, then stripped
of his job by the Cuban government, Herrera said he made several more
attempts to leave by raft or boat. And each time Cuban authorities
Though he was fined for trying to flee, he was never jailed in Cuba and
doesn't think of himself as a political refugee. Like so many recent
Cuban arrivals interviewed by the Sun Sentinel, Herrera, 41, said he
came to take his chances in an economy where hard work can be rewarded.
For more than five decades, the U.S. has given Cubans unique immigration
status and benefits because they are presumed to be refugees. But
economic opportunity, not political refuge, is why they are coming now,
new arrivals told the Sun Sentinel.
The oppression they feel comes not because they have expressed
anti-government opinions, many said, but from a bleak Cuban economy that
offers little promise of improving their everyday lives.
"Life in Cuba squeezes you," Herrera said. "There you work and work and
work and it's for nothing. You never get ahead."
Said Pedro Castineiras, 31, an engineer who came to South Florida in
November with his pregnant wife and their two-year-old son: "I am doing
this to give them a better future, my son and the one to be born."
Yasmany Paz Artiles, 28, said he hated to leave Cuba. "But there is no
future there … the truth is that everybody is leaving for the same
reason, the economic problems. The economy in Cuba is failing."
Herrera made it to South Florida in November. The barber finally found a
way that did not involve days at sea and the risk of dying from
drowning, dehydration or sharks.
From Havana's Jose Marti International Airport, he flew to Guyana,
which does not require visas for arriving Cubans. From there he set out
on a year-long odyssey through at least nine different countries before
crossing the border in Texas, carrying nothing but his passport, a
change of clothes and a backpack containing his scissors, electric
clippers and comb.
Rushing to America
Increasing numbers of Cubans are now making the trek to the United
States. More than 43,150 Cubans entered the U.S. without permission in
the year ending in late September, according to U.S. Customs and Border
Protection figures. This is up from 24,278 the prior year, an increase
of 78 percent.
Most have come through Texas, many after making a grueling journey of
more than 2,000 miles on foot, by bus and boat along a corridor that
begins in South America and runs through Central America and Mexico.
Once on U.S. soil, most Cubans are presumed to be refugees and have
immediate access to a range of benefits, including welfare, food stamps
and Medicaid, unavailable to most others. Additional privileges come
through the Cuban Adjustment Act, the federal legislation that allows
Cubans to become permanent residents after a year and a day.
Many Cubans now arriving in South Florida say that while they have been
planning to leave Cuba for the United States for years, their departures
were hastened by fears that renewed diplomatic relations between the two
countries could mean the Cuban Adjustment Act could be scrapped or amended.
"There are many people rushing [to leave] because it's now or never,"
Castineiras said. "Now, the fact that things are being normalized
creates the fear that the possibility won't exist that you'll be able to
In the year since the U.S.-Cuba accords were announced, the Obama
Administration has said no changes in the treatment of Cuban migrants
are imminent. But calls for reform have followed Sun Sentinel
investigations into how the United States' unique immigration rules for
Cubans have been exploited by criminals and welfare cheats.
Plundering America, published in January, documented how criminal rings
from Cuba have ripped off U.S businesses and federal programs of more
than $2 billion over two decades.
Easy Money, published in October, documented how some Cubans cash in on
U.S. welfare and return to the island, making a mockery of the
decades-old premise that they are refugees fleeing persecution at home.
Under a bill introduced Dec. 15 by U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami,
newly arriving Cuban immigrants who hope to collect public assistance
would "have to demonstrate that they left Cuba fleeing political
persecution and are unable to return under the current totalitarian
regime," Curbelo said.
Many recent arrivals from Cuba say they are aware of what is called La
Ayuda — the assistance, or the help — but most of them "want to go to
work, to get ahead by working," said Oscar Rivera, director of the
resettlement agency Church World Service's Doral office.
The agency keeps track of clients, checking with them a year after their
arrival, Rivera said. "We see how they are doing," he said. "They say,
'I have my computer, my TV, my car. I'm very happy with what I have
achieved in my first year in the U.S.'"
Rivera said many want to bring relatives to the U.S., and send money to
them in Cuba. After obtaining permanent residency, known more informally
as the green card, they travel to the island more frequently than
previous waves of Cuban migrants did.
'Painful, hard stories'
After his failed rafting ventures, Herrera said he had almost given up
hope of leaving Cuba. So when a friend in Havana offered to help him buy
a plane ticket to Guyana, he leapt at the chance.
From the moment he arrived in Guyana, Herrera said he was determined to
pursue his dream of a life in America. He worked construction jobs, and
at a rice factory. He saved his money.
From Guyana he went to Brazil and then Venezuela. In Colombia he joined
other Cubans on what has now become a well-worn route: through Panama,
Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. He walked along
jungle paths, took a small boat across the Gulf of Panama, rode buses
and even caught short hops on small airlines.
He paid for food, occasional lodging, and bribes to officials at border
He always traveled in groups of other Cuban migrants, avoiding predatory
guides called "coyotes" and relying instead on cell phones and social
media such as Facebook to learn the best routes and places to stay.
"If you were alone, you could be hurt," he said. "They could kill you
and nobody would know."
Along the way Herrera said he heard stories of those who did perish.
"You find out about people who died in the Gulf [of Panama]," he said.
"A boat that turned over. A woman whose child fell overboard and when
she got to shore she hanged herself.
"Painful, hard stories," said Herrera, his eyes welling with tears. "So
many stories I can't remember them all."
When he got to the Texas border, he said he had about $120 in his
pocket. He figured he spent about $10,000 in the 15 months since leaving
Cuba. With the last of his money he made his way to Houston. There,
broke and unsure of what to do next, he said he met a Cuban woman at the
bus station who helped him buy a ticket to Miami.
A new home
After staying for several days with other recently arrived Cuban men in
a small house on a church property in Southwest Miami, Herrera accepted
an offer from Church World Service to go to Lancaster, Pa., one of
several cities the agency has been using to resettle Cubans with no
relatives or other support in South Florida.
Herrera arrived in Pennsylvania on Dec. 18, he said in a phone
interview. The agency put him in a two-bedroom apartment where he can
stay for a year. He will eventually have a roommate, but is living alone
now, he said.
With help from Church World Service counselors, he has applied for a
While still in Southwest Miami, Herrera had joked that if he were to
move north he might learn to operate a plow to deal with something he
has never seen: snow.
"I haven't seen any snow yet," he said from Lancaster. "But I am happy.
I am physically and psychologically ready to go to work."
After finding a job, Herrera said his first priority would be to send
money to his father and aunt in Holguin, where he grew up. Then, if
after a year he has U.S. residency, he would like to go back to Cuba for
When Paz left his wife and four-year-old daughter in Cuba and flew to
Ecuador, the island was awash in rumors that change was coming.
"Whether the Cuban Adjustment Act was going to be canceled or not, I
don't know," said Paz, a photographer. "But there were rumors."
Paz also made the overland journey. To pay for it, he sold his house in
Cardenas, a city east of Havana, and he made several trips from Ecuador
back to Cuba to sell clothing. (Until recently Ecuador, like Guyana, did
not require Cuban visitors to have visas. But Ecuadorean officials
announced that policy would change as of Dec. 1 in an effort to curb the
migrant flow from Cuba.)
Once he is established in the United States, Paz said, he hopes that his
wife and daughter — now living with her family — can join him.
The journey of Castineiras and his wife and son was less fraught than
that of Herrera or Paz. After arriving in Ecuador he found work, and
almost immediately began applying for jobs in Mexico and Canada, the
countries closest to his real destination, the U.S.
When he got a job offer and a plane ticket to Cancun, he took it. "But I
never even went to the job because it was just a means to travel," he said.
From Cancun, Castineiras and his family flew to Mexico City, and then
to Reynosa, where they went to the border. "There we asked for political
asylum," he said.
The family is now staying with relatives in Miami while both he and his
wife — also an engineer — look for jobs.
"My dream is to work and be able to support my family and live in
freedom," he said. "Cuba has a political system that directs everything,
the society and the economy."
Separating Cuban arrivals who come for purely economic reasons from
those with a fear of political persecution is an impossible task, said
Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida
"It is a combination of factors," he said. "In Cuba the government
decides how people work and what they're going to earn in their
occupations, and in the end that has political connotations."
But Paz, Castineiras and Herrera all agree that until economic
conditions in Cuba improve, the exodus to the U.S. will continue.
"If it was easy to travel, and you could keep coming here," Herrera
said, "Cuba would empty out."
Source: Cuban adjustment: Newly arrived migrants talk of hope, hardship,
and why they're coming to America - Sun Sentinel -