They were seated in the back row when the passengers entered the plane. Cubana Airlines Flight 131 took off Thursday from Mexico City with four deportees on board. The Cuban bureaucracy calls them “returned by air” and they represent only a portion of those who are repatriated en route to the United States.
In recent months the number of Cubans leaving for the north has grown, as also has the number of those who are intercepted and returned to the island. Most are not dissuaded after a forced return and try again. Their worst nightmare is not immigration officials, but an end to the Cuban Adjustment Act.
From October 1, 2014 to this September 30, 43,159 Cubans reached the United States. The main entry points were the border areas of El Paso and Laredo (Texas), Tucson (Arizona) and San Diego (California).
“This was my third attempt, the first was on a raft and in the second they sent be back from Panama,” says Clara, 48, who was returned from Mexico this October. She considers her return to the island a real catastrophe. “I had sold everything to leave and when I got here I was repatriated without a penny in my pocket and no house to live in,” she explains.
“I had sold everything to leave and when I got here I was repatriated without a penny in my pocket and no house to live in”
Clara now sleeps on the couch of a relative in San José de las Lajas, Mayabeque. “I only have what I had in my hand luggage,” she adds. Her trip was hindered at the Benito Juarez International Airport, where she was considered a potential migrant to the United States. She came from Havana, where she managed to get a visa to the Aztec soil, but her family in Miami, was left with the table set and their dreams frustrated.
“They took me to a room that was full of Cubans who were also to be returned” says Clara, recalling that fateful day. “We had to wait there for Cuban planes to have room to return us,” she details. The woman had a hotel reservation for seven days in Mexico City. “I already knew that if they asked me I would have to say I was not planning to visit any border area.” The truth is that the next day she was planning to leave for Nuevo Laredo and from there enter the United States.
Advice passes from mouth to mouth. “Don’t be nervous, don’t talk too much, just give short answers,” her daughter had warned her; having made the same journey she is now living in Miami’s Little Havana. But Clara was a bundle of nerves when they inquired about the reason for her trip. “I started to stutter and that was suspicious.” Afterwards they asked her how much money she had brought with her.
Clara was a bundle of nerves when they inquired about the reason for her trip. “I started to stutter and that was suspicious.”
“I had $200 and they told me that was a proof that I wasn’t going to spend a week in Mexico City, because it was very little.” She wasn’t able to make a phone call to warn her relatives of the situation in which she found herself and spent the rest of the night in a room with dozens of compatriots. “Everyone was in the same situation: they wouldn’t let us enter but we didn’t want to return.”
Some Cuban exiles carry out the first protest of their lives on foreign territory. Riots, hunger strikes and clashes with authorities have become common practice when they have been left stranded at airports, border crossings and immigration detention centers. This Friday, a group of them blocked the Panamerican Highway on the border between Costa Rica and Panama to demand that they be allowed to continue along the road. If they are returned to the island, they won’t be the same people who left.
“I returned a big mouth, I won’t shut up for anything,” relates Clara, who says she has “acquired a taste for freedom” in her three attempts to leave. For the Cuban authorities the best outcome is that people like her leave again, “because we no longer fit in here and they know it,” she says while pointing upwards with her index finger. “What I want is to leave, so I’m not going to fix something that has no solution.”
“What I want is to leave, so I’m not going to fix something that has no solution.”
On the flight back to Cuba, Clara agreed to give ten dollars to another passenger to borrow her cellphone just as they landed. An employee of the State airline, in his double role as a flight attendant and guard of the deportees, said they couldn’t get off until all the other passengers had gotten off. “We had to wait for two “uniforms” to come and get us and they gave them our passports,” she said.
Then they took her to an office at José Martí Airport, where they took down all their data and gave them warnings. The chairs in the room remained filled with the deportees who were arriving on other flights. “It didn’t stop, every time there were more, coming from Panama, Ecuador, Colombia and Mexico.”
When she left there, she managed to make the call. “They sent me back,” she told her daughter. On the other end of the phone line she heard the long moan. The failed trip had cost the family $3,000, months of planning and the stress of every minute when they didn’t know where she was.
This mother of a family shudders to remember that day when an immigration officer stepped between her and her dreams. But she isn’t giving up: “Nothing matters here, nothing attracts me, I just think about leaving again.”