The Crossing Of The Desert

Balseros cubanos
Cuban rafters

Since the second half of the twentieth century we Cubans have been the Jews of the Caribbean, and the Malecon is our Wailing Wall. Among other topics, the immigration issue figures in the meeting between Raul Castro and Pena Nieto in Merida, Yucatan. The two countries are united by historical ties: the poet José María Heredia lived and died here in Mexico, José Martí married here, passing through here were the politicians Mella, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara. In 1951 Perez Prado launched “Ruidoso Rico Mambo” here, then came Benny More, Celia Cruz, “La Sonora Matancera,” the “Mulatas de Fuego” and, in the sixties, “The Tremendous Corte” triumphed on radio and television with Trespatines, Rudesindo and the Galician Rudesindo. All these humorous, musical and voluptuous cyclones are forever linked with Cuba.

But the Cuban exodus is a tragedy of biblical proportions. If the desert crossing of the Israelites lasted for 40 years, that of the Cuban people has lasted half a century, counting from the first mass exodus from the port of Camarioca (1965), followed by the port of Mariel stampede (1980), which was repeated during the “rafters crisis” (1994).

In 1995, when the US Coast Guard began to return Cuban rafters intercepted in the Straits of Florida, the island’s escaping slaves sought other routes toward the south. They started out from Camagüey, for Santa Cruz del Sur, toward the Cayman Islands and Honduras. Even between 2002 and 2004 many Cubans traveled as tourists to Russia, some asked for political asylum at the layover at the Barajas airport and for those arriving in Moscow it was harder. Some managed to get documents to travel to Mexico at astronomical prices, others ended up so far away they left with a free visa for Sao Tome and Principe in West Africa.

Mexico as a bridge to the United States became the most coveted goal. The sign of the most persistent “blood, sweat and tears” runs to Guatemala drawing a geography of pain that is clear proof of the failure of the Cuban utopia. As Voltaire said: “It has been tried in several countries not to allow a citizen to leave the nation in which he had the accident of being born; visibly the meaning of this law is: this country is so bad and so badly governed that we prohibit every individual from leaving, for fear that everyone would go.”

Those fugitives fleeing from the chronic shortages, repression, lack of individual human rights and a bleak future, soon crowd into Ecuador thanks to the close ideological relations between that country and the island. The Cuban government, as on other occasions, needs a valve to release the steam from the cauldron and, also, a future source of income from family remittances. And Quito has become the ideal place from which to reach Mexico in the long Cuban pilgrimage. From there, groups leave for Colombia, then Panama, Costa Rice, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. The flow of Cubans who come from Ecuador to Tapachula, a migration station in Chiapas, varies between 40 and 50 a day. They are looking for safe conduct to cross Mexico as a bridge to the Promised Land.

The Cuban diaspora is the most extensive in world history since the Jews in the time of the Babylonian captivity. This dispersion of wandering Cubans has grown and accelerated since the “thaw” between Cuba and the United States, growing still more with the rumor of the imminent repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act. It goes without saying that these tropical pilgrims face hurricanes, sharks, sunstroke, impenetrable jungles, tumultuous rivers, human trafficking, extortionist police and guerrillas and thieves…

This Cuban exodus evokes the riskest travel fictions:  The Odyssey by Homer; the myth of Jason and the Argonauts; Virgil’s  Aeneid; Jonah and the Whale;  The Lusiadas by Luis Vas de Camoes;  Sinbad the Sailor; Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe;  Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift;  The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe;  Moby-Dick by Melville;  The Sphinx of the Ice by Jules Verne; Stevenson’s  Treasure Island; Joseph Conrad’s  Heart of Darkness and other works that do not fit here.

The Cuban reality exceeds any of these stories no matter how fanciful and exaggerated their authors have been. In the film  Memories of Underdevelopment, by Tomas Gutierrez Alea, the protagonist paraphrases Che Guevara when he says: “This great humanity has said enough and has started to get moving… and will not stop until it gets to Miami…”

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