Pepes, Yumas and tourists are some of the names we give to those who visit our country. For many Cubans, these travelers are their main source of income, through accommodation, transportation, dance and language classes. Some also share classrooms at the university, or work in a joint venture. However, in most cases their stay is brief, they are passing through, for only a few days or months. What happens when they come to stay?
A painting on a Havana wall addresses the contradiction between the official discourse that prides itself on the solidarity of a nation, but one where the immigrant has no place. This drawing of Che Guevara with a contentious quote – “In the homeland of solidarity there are no foreigners” – lasted just a few hours in its makeshift place, before the censor arrived in the form of a blue brushstroke to cover it over. For the government, when the foreigners arrive on their cruises, stay a few nights and leave their cold hard cash in the state coffers, everything seems fine. It is a whole different thing when they decide to come and stay. Then, the nationalistic hostility that characterizes the Cuban system shows itself.
Cuban immigration law is perhaps one of the strictest on the planet for a foreigner who settles in the national territory. For decades, living here was a privilege allowed only to the “comrades” of Eastern Europe, apprentice guerrillas, and political refugees from Latin American dictatorships. Diplomatic personnel and some chosen academics completed the map of natives of other countries who would stay in Cuba more or less permanently.
The island ceased to be a country of immigrants, where the crucible of identity joined together cultures far and near. Chinese, French, Arabs, Haitians, Spaniards and Poles, among many others, brought their customs, culinary recipes, and entrepreneurial initiatives to achieve the wonder of diversity. Today it is rare to see people who were not born here gathered around family tables.
At the end of 2014, the National Bureau of Statistics announced that the number of foreign residents in Cuba in 2011 represented just 0.05% of the population. A figure that contrasts with the 128,392 foreigners – 1.3% of the population – that we shared the island with in 1981. Two factors explain the sharp drop in foreign residents: the implosion, in the 1990s, of the socialist camp, whence the “technicals” of yesteryear; and, above all, because our country long ago ceased to be a nation of opportunities.
While foreign residents were leaving, temporary visitors were becoming an economic “lifeline” in the face of an increasing material misery. These latter were, for a long time, the only ones with hard currency, and with it the ability to buy shampoo in the “diplotiendas” (diplomat stores), and to experience the enormous luxury of enjoying a cold beer in a hotel bar. The tourist became the Prince Charming of many young Cuban women’s dreams, the son-in-law that every father-in-law wanted, and the preferred tenant of rooms for rent.
Even today foreigners are seen by many Cubans as wallets with legs who walk the streets, which must be emptied of every coin. It is difficult for a foreigner in Cuba to determine to what extent the friendliness they come across in the streets is the natural kindness of our people, versus a histrionic performance the objective of which is to get one’s hand in their pocket.
Cubans have lost the habit of living – equal to equal – with “the other.” Sharing jobs with immigrants, accepting that people speak different languages on a public bus. Our kitchens have been impoverished by lack of contact with other gastronomic experiences, we have become less universal and markedly more “islanders” in the worst sense of the word. We have lost the capacity to tolerate and welcome other ways of doing, speaking and living.
How will we react when our country becomes a destination for immigrants? Will they be condemned to the worst jobs? Will xenophobic groups emerge that reject those who come from overseas? Will there be NGOs to protect them? Programs to help them integrate? Politicians who don’t fear them? All these questions need to be answered in a shorter time frame than we think. Cuba could again be, very soon, a nation of people who come from many places.