Another Migrant Story

The driver ordered them to take their things and get into the car.

“They are waiting for us now. Quickly,” he said while making sure that the three of them were who they said they were: Marta, Karen, and Javier, Cubans, all between 25 and 30 years old, migrants, and clients.

They got into the car, a small, not very modern model, and left behind the small hotel that their families had booked for them from the United States to keep up appearances and pretend they were just tourists interested in shopping and getting to know Managua. Marta would have at least liked to see the rooms already arranged for them and rest, but the coyote’s order was clear: they had to move quickly before Christmas arrived and the holidays complicated the trip.

For hours, they traveled silently along the roads. From the window, they saw the city, and then towns, and then pure weeds and bush and dense jungle. The car finally stopped in a lonely wasteland.

“We have to walk just a little. Get out,” ordered the driver, and together they crossed a stretch of undergrowth. Nearby, a dozen people were waiting for them. Marta realized they were Cubans, except for one, a Nicaraguan, who must have been the coyote.

There was no time for formal introductions. The coyote said that the river was close and that they would cross it that same day. “Today you rest in Honduras,” he assured.

“So fast?” Marta whispered to her friends.

“It’s for the best. We’ll be fine,” said Karen, who seemed very confident and barely spoke, as if she was saving her strength for the road.

Marta was silently grateful to have her best friend by her side. She could not think of a better company for what was ahead, especially since Karen had a special gift for reading the circumstances and saying and doing just what was necessary at any given moment. Martha and Javier knew that when Karen spoke this way, in short, sharp sentences, she was scolding them in a way. These scoldings, however, gave them confidence.

They arrived at the Guasaule River, bordering Honduras in northeastern Nicaragua. They boarded small, precarious boats, some like canoes, others mere planks strapped over truck tire tubes. The waters were muddy but shallow, reaching almost to the hips of the men pushing the boats to the other side. Beyond, a piece of jungle opened by narrow paths awaited them, which belonged to the Department of Choluteca. The area was almost empty, even though the Guasaule is usually filled with boats crossing back and forth, making the riverbed look like a jammed highway. Until a few months ago it was like that. Nicaraguans used to cross it by the thousands to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in Honduras, which thanks to the Covax program had imported both Pfizer and Moderna, strong immunizers and, above all, recognized by the World Health Organization, that is, useful for traveling. Meanwhile, Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo applied Cuban vaccines to minors and Russian Sputnik V to adults.

The coyote took them through the path that started at the shore. Marta felt for a moment that the jungle was a living thing, a green, screeching monster and that the entrance to the trail was an open mouth that would close once they passed. She was feeling like a snack, a sort of human sacrifice for this force of nature, when she heard a voice in the distance ordering them to stop.

The coyote was the first to shout for them to turn and run. They began to stumble against each other or crash against the bushes, which pushed them back into the stampede. They fell, crawled forward, and then picked themselves up to keep running toward the entrance of the trail, out of the jaws of the green, screeching monster.

Martha thought she was the last when she tripped and plunged face-first into the muddy riverbank. The rest of the group, along with the coyote, was already stumbling down the Guasaule, heading for Nicaragua. As she stood up, she saw Karen emerge from the trail and then a pair of arms grabbed her backpack. Her friend fell to the ground with a jerk, right at the feet of the uniformed man approaching her. She called out her name. “Karen, Karen.” Martha tried to run to her. She wanted to save her. The man roughly lifted her friend. He grabbed her by the arms and was yelling things at her that Martha didn’t understand. Karen then turned her head towards Martha. She opened her eyes wide and bared her teeth, like an angry beast. “Go away,” Martha thought she read on Karen’s lips. “Go away,” Karen said again without a sound, though this time Marta could have sworn it was a scream echoing through the jungle.

***

On November 22, 2021, the Nicaraguan government eliminated the visa requirement for Cuban visitors. Since then, Nicaragua has become the main starting point for Cubans embarking on the migration route to the United States. The decision taken by Daniel Ortega’s regime brings Cubans closer to the United States and puts an end to the times when the route started much lower, in Guyana, and forced them to cross such dangerous places as the Darien Gap, a jungle area that serves as a border between Colombia and Panama.

The economic precariousness and the increase in political repression have forced Cubans to take part in what is already a migratory crisis equal to or greater than others experienced in the country during the last 60 years. The numbers do not lie. From October 2020 to October 2021, a little more than 38,000 Cubans arrived in the United States through the southern border, while from October 2021 to the end of February 2022, that is, in almost five months, more than 48,000 did so. In the same period, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted about 1,067 Cubans in the Florida Straits.

The current figures leave far behind those of the “Rafters Crisis” (from 32,000 to 35,000) and those of the 2015 exodus (44,000), when many Cubans migrated to the United States fearing the end of the “wet foot/dry foot” policy, which would finally arrive in 2017.

If the growth rate of these numbers remains stable, from October 2021 to October 2022 at least 132,000 Cubans will have arrived at the U.S. southern border. That would also leave behind the numbers of the “Mariel Exodus” (more than 125 thousand).

***

Technically, it was a city, but it always seemed to Karen that the place where she was born and raised was a town. What separates a city from a town, she thought, is not the square miles, nor the population density or the size of the buildings, but the kind of ties that exist between the individual and their piece of land, their neighbors and their house: the sense of belonging. In the cities, even in Cuba, a day can go by without an acquaintance passing you on the street and forcing you to remember, and you can also move once, twice, three times without any problem. However, in the towns, everyone shares common memories, and the absolute certainty that your house will also be that of your children and grandchildren as it was that of your grandparents and then of your parents, and that whoever leaves does so forever.

As a child, Karen was told that she was born on a sack of flour, as her mother was also told. Her grandfather was not born on one, but he did grow up among many sacks until he became a prestigious master baker in the community. Shortly before Karen was born, young people no longer wanted to be bakers or carpenters, or artisans, but to study engineering, medicine, and law. Then came the shortages of the 1990s and hunger crept especially into those homes where university degrees decorated the walls. It was then that Karen’s father, who until then had made a living saving people in a medical center, abandoned bandages and catheters to dust his hands with flour and peddle what was undoubtedly the best bread in town.

Bad times forced a few to leave, almost all of them to the United States. Over the next two decades many others would leave, some in Karen’s family. Those who left almost always ended up taking someone else out, whether through “family reunification” or inspiring stories of fridges full of vegetables and meat, cars of their own, and freedom. Migration was expanding and emptying the town, enough facts to be considered an uncontrolled epidemic.

Karen caught it at age 13 when she was certain she didn’t want to live there anymore. Her people weren’t doing badly, or not as bad as most. The old baker’s trade guaranteed her and her siblings a good plate of food every day, and in the village that was more or less the meaning of prosperity. For some, however, it meant opulence. The local authorities and police set their sights on her father, who was arrested more than a dozen times for selling bread and cookies. During one of the arrests, he suffered a stroke that kept the family in suspense, but fortunately, he survived with few after-effects. Faced with the possibility of a criminal conviction, Karen’s father abandoned the flour sacks and returned to his profession.

Karen studied to be a teacher and worked as a teacher only as long as it took her to find a job as a tour guide. The dollars that the tourists left behind allowed her a relatively comfortable life, but even that did not get her mind off the idea of leaving the country.

She applied for scholarships to as many foreign universities as she could. Seneca College in Toronto, Canada, accepted her into one of their master’s programs. Karen managed to pay the tuition with the help of relatives who had been living in North America for a few years, but the Canadian consulate denied her a visa. She then tried to leave on a speedboat, which would secretly pick her up together with some acquaintances and take her directly to a key in Florida. However, the plan never materialized. She also applied for a visa to Panama, at the time when the Panamanian consulate granted permits to Cubans to buy clothes, motorcycles, and household appliances in the Colon Free Zone, very close to the transoceanic canal. Karen arrived late. By the time her visa was denied, Cubans had stopped shopping and used the permit to enter the Central American country to begin their migratory route to the United States.

In late November 2021, she decided she would go to Nicaragua. She prepared the trip with the help of emigrant relatives, who were in charge of buying the ticket and finding someone to take her to the southern border of the United States. Marta and Javier would accompany her, also with the support of their respective families. The plane to Managua would depart on December 19.

Karen cried every night of her last week in Cuba. Her younger brother, barely a child, refused to talk to her when he knew she was leaving, “If I talk to you I get sad,” he finally told her one day. Karen and her father convinced him to change his mind, explaining that not saying goodbye properly would be worse, that later he would feel sadder and full of regret.

“Don’t be scared. I don’t want you to be scared all the time, thinking that something bad might happen to me,” Karen told her father before leaving the house carrying a huge backpack.

“You take care of yourself. Take care of yourself. That’s all I ask of you,” he said, crying and kissing her.

It was the last time they saw each other.

***

The growing influx of illegal migrants into U.S. territory causes a stir on Capitol Hill in Washington. Democratic and Republican senators have agreed this time to stop the constant flow of Latin Americans and Africans arriving through the southern border.

They seek to extend the so-called Title 42, a health law revived by Donald Trump when the coronavirus reached the United States, which allows for the expedited removal of migrants, especially those entering through the southern border. Title 42 is part of the Public Health Act of 1944, a regulation made in the heat of World War II that gives the government temporary authority to expel aliens immediately during emergencies, except for unaccompanied minors.

Joe Biden announced the repeal of Title 42 for next May 23 and the news was not well received on Capitol Hill. Until that date, the Senate will try to avoid it and extend the application of the rule. Republican senator for the state of Florida, Marco Rubio, is a ringleader of this initiative. His plans include the massive and immediate expulsion of migrants until at least 2025.

Meanwhile, Texas Governor Gregg Abbott is pushing for the placement of barbed wire fences along its border with Mexico to make illegal entry into the United States more difficult, while sending caravans of captured illegal migrants to Washington to draw President Biden’s attention to the state’s immigration crisis.

Containment at the southern border has so far been the most recurrent strategy of U.S. governments, but in the current context, this would only provoke an unprecedented humanitarian crisis at the gates of the country. Joe Biden, it seems, is looking for a solution outside the canon of deportations and the reinforcement of his borders. To do so, he plans to involve the governments of migrant-sending countries. “Weave a regional pact,” he said as an advance of his plan, which is set to take shape at the next Summit of the Americas (Los Angeles, June 2022).

Biden’s strategy, however, is nothing new. The regional pacts on migration between the United States, Mexico, and Central American countries have always been a command forcing increased border surveillance, checkpoints, and deportations to their “inferiors” through economic agreements or, simply, pressures and blackmail. What would change then? The intensity of such pressures, which would bring about a greater commitment on the part of those pressured. In other words, the only way for the United States to get rid of a migration and humanitarian crisis of great magnitude is to divide it among Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala.

***

It was the first time she took a plane and left the country. From the window, she saw Cuba growing smaller. She gazed at the outline of its coasts, miles of land perfectly defined, like on a map, which eventually disappeared under the clouds. “There. At last. There’s no turning back,” she thought and settled her head back in the seat.

Some people had tried to convince her not to embark on the trip. Even her relatives in the United States had warned her that crossing Central America and Mexico was far more dangerous than she could imagine, that the happy stories of those who had successfully achieved it sometimes hid unspeakable tragedies and traumatic experiences.

“You think everyone makes it, huh? Tell me, have you heard the story of the one who didn’t make it, the one who drowned, the one who was killed? If you’re going to do it, you have to understand what you’re up against. The dead don’t tell stories, Karen,” said one of them.

“Just get me a plane ticket. If I die on the way, I’ll die happy. Besides, if I stay here I’m going to end up in jail because the next time people pour into the streets I’m going to go out too. Did you hear that? I’m going out. And I don’t want to kill my dad out of sadness,” she replied, trying to sound confident. Her family agreed after that subtle blackmail.

On the plane, Karen wondered if she really would have dared to go out into the streets had another anti-government protest like the one on July 11 taken place. That day she did not join the town’s protesters —just a few dozen, maybe a hundred— who were easily neutralized by the local authorities. Not many people in her neighborhood were imprisoned, and the few sentences imposed were not severe, but in other parts of the country, hundreds of protesters got sentenced to ten, 15, and 20 years in prison. Her relatives in the United States knew that very well, so Karen used it to her advantage.

“Would you really do it?” asked Marta and Javier, who were traveling next to her.

“Of course, I would,” she answered as if it was obvious. In truth, she was convinced that she would do it, although she would not have the opportunity to prove it.

Karen estimated that there were just over 200 passengers on the plane. They were all rather quiet, nervous. “Maybe they’re leaving the country for the first time, too,” she thought. The plane stopped at the airport in La Romana, in the southeast of the Dominican Republic.

“Those who make it this far can get off. The stopover will be very short, so we ask you to do so right away and in order,” said one of the flight attendants, a foreign boy. However, no one got up from their seats.

“Ah, so you are all going ‘over there’, aren’t you?” he continued.

He feigned astonishment and pointed “over there” to the north, with the pose of a seasoned standup comedy actor. The passengers began to laugh and, from then on, to introduce themselves and talk to each other.

“I can’t believe it. Everyone is here for the same thing. It’s so shocking.”

“Oh, Javier, Cuba is empty. What do they say? The last one to depart turns off El Morro, right?” Marta joked.

“Thank goodness we are taking it with humor, because, if you think about it… don’t you think it’s sad that so many people want to leave their country?” said Karen.

***

Mexico and the countries of Central America make up “the most homicidal region in the world”. The dead and disappeared are so many that it is impossible to find exact numbers to illustrate the horror in these lands. The impunity enjoyed by the vast majority of crimes does not help to clarify the facts either.

Gangs, drug cartels, machismo and the corruption of the state forces called upon to maintain order make this area a territory with a death toll as high as that of countries at war.

According to the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, in 2021 the eight cities with the highest murder rate in the world are in Mexico. The first place went to Zamora (in the state of Michoacán), with approximately 196 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, a number that exceeds those of extremely violent countries such as Venezuela (40.9 per 100,000), and Honduras (38.6 per 100,000) and El Salvador (17.6 per 100,000). Two cities that border the United States, Tijuana, and Ciudad Juárez, ranked fourth and sixth, respectively. Another ten Mexican cities are in the macabre “top 50” of the most homicidal cities in the world. Two Honduran cities are also featured: San Pedro Sula (41.96 per 100,000) and Distrito Central (37.18 per 100,000).

In other words, Cuban migrants who make the migratory route to the United States must cross two countries that concentrate 20 of the cities with the highest rates of violent deaths in the world.

***

“Jesus, Karen! What a scare, Mija. You don’t know everything that went through my mind,” said Marta, wiping her tears.

Karen had crossed the river towards them, looking as if she had just had a little scare.

“There, there. I know,” she consoled her friend.

“I thought they were going to put you in jail, or that they were going to….”

“Shhhh, now, Marta. Let her talk. So, Karen, tell us everything. You almost scared us to death,” ordered Javier.

They were all sitting on the grass, with their clothes wet and shoes off, waiting for the sun to dry them before returning to the road. The rest of the group also wanted to know what had happened on the other side of the Guasaule.

“Nothing happened. That man grabbed me and asked me where I was from. He told me that I was being detained, asked me who had brought me there. And I said to myself: ‘ah, no, I’m moving on’. I started to talk to him and see if I could bribe him, but I didn’t have any money. Then I remembered the gold earrings I was wearing. Real gold. And I told him, ‘Look, you’re not going to gain anything by arresting me for deportation, and me neither. I can help you.’ I put my earrings in his hand and convinced him. Then he let me go back.”

Everyone seemed to marvel at his story. Even the coyote, who listened with his arms folded, nodded his head as if to say “well done”. Karen, however, left out some details in her account, such as the trembling of her legs and the urge to cry, and the stuttering in her first words to the immigration officer, which were a plea. The idea of the bribe came to her like an epiphany when she stopped at the officer’s face. She had seen that expression many times in her hometown, especially on the policemen who had so often detained his father.

“There is no uniform that can hide poverty. The poor, those who have to support a family and have nothing to live on, have it written in their eyes. I saw that in him. I figured he must have children and a wife and a mother to feed, that’s all,” she told Marta a little later, as she explained the encounter in a little more detail.

The next day they managed to cross the river and come out on the other side of the narrow path that opened up on its bank. The walk was long and exasperating, especially because of the stories the coyote was telling, all about rapes, assaults, and murders suffered by migrants in the southern part of Honduras. Karen didn’t know whether to doubt these stories. “Maybe he is just doing it to make us believe that we are lucky to be with him so that we trust and feel safe in his company,” she thought. She then recalled her time as a tour guide, when she would throw in the occasional personal anecdote or local legend and slyly make tourists believe that they had just learned a unique story and that they were lucky to have her, the ultimate keeper of an exclusive secret. The only thing that made her suspect that the horrors narrated by the coyote could be true were the words of that relative who tried to dissuade her from her determination to cross jungles and rivers: “Dead people don’t tell stories, Karen”.

They stopped in a wasteland near a small village of very poor people, whose name Karen and her friends would never know because it is the kind of information that coyotes keep to themselves, perhaps for security reasons.

“If I were you, I’d throw some things away. The things you need the least, of course. Now you will have to travel light, as much as possible,” warned the coyote.

Karen then opened her backpack and took out her luggage: wet towels, bath flip-flops, blouses, coats, food, a bottle of water, and a bag of make-up that she had brought with her, thinking that a woman with powder, lipstick, and eyeliner would never look to the immigration authorities as having just come out of the jungle.

“And what do we do with what we left behind?” someone asked.

“You can give it away,” the coyote replied, smiling, as he pointed to a flock of curious villagers approaching them.

Karen handed over everything except the bottle of water, the food, a change of clothes, her passport, and cell phone. The villagers accepted the gifts with enthusiasm, although Karen guessed from their attitude, including that of the young woman who received the makeup bag, that this was not the first time strangers had shown up in these parts and left them their things.

The coyote suggested that they eat something before continuing and also said something about how that was as far as he would go, that the next stretch would be guided by others. Karen obeyed but ate very little. She was hungry, but she had promised herself to eat small portions of food at each stop on the trip; just enough so as not to suffer fatigue from malnutrition or indigestion from nerves. An hour later a noisy caravan of motorcycles arrived, all driven by very young boys.

“Here I leave you,” said the coyote, as the first group left with the migrants riding on the back of the motorcycles, hugging the drivers.

When it was Karen, Marta, and another young woman’s turn, five border guards jumped out of the bushes and stood on the trail, blocking their way. Karen and her driver were stopped on the spot. Marta and the young woman managed to get off the motorcycles and hide behind some weeds, while their drivers and the coyote fled in the opposite direction.

“Come out,” shouted one of the border guards, standing a few meters from Marta’s hiding place, who stood up with her hands in the air along with the other Cuban.

“Everything is going to be fine. You will see.”

“No, Karen, no. We’re screwed. This time we’re screwed,” Marta told her as they were loaded into a van.

***

Karen, of course, is not her name. The names of the rest of the characters in this story have also been changed. That is her wish. Only from anonymity does our protagonist feel safe and also believes that her family, the one she left behind in Cuba, is safe from possible reprisals by state authorities.

The perpetuity of fear is one of the most visible and common symptoms among those who have lived under a totalitarian system. Distance and freedom do not necessarily guarantee that fear will die out. Violence against others close to them and the subsequent idea of knowing themselves to be potential victims is enough to perpetuate fear, distrust, and even delusions of persecution for many years. Constant intimidation, and chastisement through exemplary aggression against others, is also a type of violence: “indirect” violence, if that is what you want to call it.

“These conditions could be considered paranoia. It is common in people who have experienced great stress and/or for a long time, and who may suffer from post-traumatic stress. These are people who have lived and/or grown up in fear and it has marked them deeply. It occurs when an experience leaves an imprint on their minds and they have no mechanisms to handle or rationalize it,” explained Spanish psychologist Adriana Canal for this text.

On the traumas left by “indirect violence” she added:

“These can also provoke paranoia. If people have seen this type of violence around them, especially from a young age and for years, they can suffer subtle damage. A person can be shocked by what they see and hear around them. There are people, for example, who can’t sit in front of a computer without covering the camera, and it’s just out of paranoia, out of fear that someone will see them, which is caused by all the news they consume about social networks and the dangers of cyber-surveillance and image theft and so on.”

The experience of totalitarianism is not the only psychological pressure point capable of activating paranoia and other similar discomforts in Cubans who migrate. The very fact of being migrants carries with it the danger of suffering from what psychiatrists call Ulysses Syndrome, which presents itself in the form of symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, and/or delusions of persecution.

It is not a mental disorder per se, but a psychological state provoked by the traumas caused by migration. It was first described in 2002, which speaks to how the phenomenon of mass migration has become increasingly present across the globe since the beginning of this century.

The team of psychiatrists of the Psychopathological and Psychosocial Care Service for Immigrants and Refugees (SAPPIR in Spanish) located in Barcelona, one of the first to diagnose the Ulysses Syndrome, warns that not all migrants suffer from it and that some do not experience it in the same way or with the same intensity. These differences, according to them, are usually conditioned by each person’s culture. The Ulysses Syndrome has its origin in a series of “mournings” derived from migration, which are nothing more than a psychological process of reorganization of the personality that an individual undergoes when he or she loses something important. The most common grief or mourning process among migrants is linked to the loss of family, friends, native language, culture, land, social status, and physical security. In other words, it is the result of being forced to break a kind of psychological inertia, to adapt the psyche to a new and difficult context.

***

They sat her in a chair, in front of the bureau of an immigration officer who struck her as one of the tallest and stoutest men she had ever seen in her life. Three other guards stood around her, spread out throughout the office. Karen would be the first to be questioned. Her companions waited outside, under surveillance. The biker, she deduced, would be in the next office or, perhaps, in a dungeon.

“Where did you come from?” asked the officer.

“If I don’t even know where I am, how can I tell you where I come from? I only know that I used to be in Nicaragua,” Karen answered, hiding her fear.

“But you are from Cuba, aren’t you?”

“Ah, yes, I am Cuban.”

“And how did you get here?”

“By walking.”

“And who brought you here?”

“Nobody. We came alone.”

“Of course, of course. And you crossed the river alone,” he said, sarcastically.

“Look, officer, I only crossed a puddle. I don’t know if that counts as a river.”

The man seemed in a hurry. His patience was at its limit.

“Let’s do something: we plant 100 U.S. dollars in the wallet of the boy who was with you and you say, I don’t know, that that’s what you paid him to cross into Honduras. I guarantee that nothing will happen to you. We will give you a safe-conduct and you will be able to go to Guatemala without any problems.”

The offer was tempting. Karen had no idea what the border police procedure was with migrants in such cases. Maybe they would detain them or deport them to Cuba, or both, who knew. On the other hand, neither she nor Marta and probably not the other girl either, knew where they were, let alone how to get to Guatemala on their own. In case they accepted the offer and needed to use again the network of coyotes… what would they say: ‘We betrayed one of your own so as not to return to Cuba?’. That was not an option.

“We do this and everybody wins.”

Karen did not answer. Her silence made the officer even more uncomfortable, so he got up from his chair and brought his face closer to hers, covered with a mask.

“I want to help you, miss, I want to help you. But you have to help us too, don’t you agree?”

“Officer, when you want to help someone, you do it with no strings attached. If you want something in return, then it’s no help at all.”

The other guards began to laugh. The officer also seemed to be amused by Karen’s response. The tension of the interrogation dissipated. Karen no longer needed to hide her fear because it had disappeared. She now felt a little more confident, even emboldened.

“He was paid by someone to bring her in.”

“It might be so, but it wasn’t me. What do you want me to tell you, that he’s a coyote, that I paid out of my own pocket to take us to the United States?”

“That’s right,” said the officer.

Karen then noticed that one of the guards took a cell phone out of his pocket and pointed it at her.

“Look, put the phone down,” she said to the guard. “You may be filming me to present the video as my statement and I have given no statement.”

The guard complied. The others looked a little surprised. Perhaps, in all their years in the border guards, none of those four men had ever seen an illegal migrant express herself in this way.

“Tell me something, what did you study?”

“I’m an English teacher.”

“Okay. Go and wait outside,” ordered the officer, and turning to one of the guards, he said, “Bring me another one.

Karen was led out of the office, where Marta and the other girl were waiting.

“What did they tell you?” asked Marta.

“Nothing. You don’t say anything or acknowledge anything. Neither of you. Is that clear?”

Hours later, their belongings were returned to them and they were put in a van that dropped them off on the banks of the Guasaule. It was already dark and they were ordered to cross back to Nicaragua. At that time the water was only a few inches above their ankles. Once on the other side, they walked until they found a small inn, from where they called their relatives to tell them what had happened and coordinate a new pick-up the following morning.

Before noon on December 21, Karen arrived at the same place where she had been detained the day before. After crossing the river, the three Cuban women rode a few miles on horseback. Three motorcyclists were waiting for them and together they rode for three hours on long dirt tracks at high speed. Karen then thought of the boy they had captured. Neither he nor these new motorcyclists, all very quiet and focused on not losing control in such difficult terrain, reached their 30s.

***

The Cuban government has once again turned the growing number of people leaving the island to migrate to the United States into a rhetoric weapon that is one of the pillars of its political propaganda. The official media ignores the fact that it was the elimination of visa requirements by Daniel Ortega’s regime that triggered the latest migratory wave, and that it is the climate of political repression and the shortage of medicines, food, and basic services that drives many to illegally cross Central America and Mexico.

Castroist rhetoric again blames the United States for not complying with the migration agreements with Cuba, among which is the commitment to grant 20,000 visas annually. The latter, however, would not help to stem the flow of illegal migrants, since the number of visas agreed upon does not even represent half of the number of Cubans who entered the United States illegally in just five months.

The Cuban government has also thrown a tantrum for having been left out of the preparations for the next Summit of the Americas, which will have migration as one of its central topics of debate. The protests of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX), however, are groundless, especially when the Cuban government has always refused to accept its responsibilities before Inter-American organizations and their dependencies, except for the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which basically emerged as Hugo Chavez’s initiative.

The Cuban government’s alleged irritation at its apparent exclusion from the Summit of the Americas may be due, in part, to the fact that it has lost an opportunity to establish communications with the U.S. government. On April 21, the two administrations resumed bilateral dialogue on migration issues in Washington, the first since Biden took office as President of the United States. Shortly thereafter, after the announcement of the results of the talks (the United States committed to gradually reestablish part of its consular services in Havana in exchange for Cuba’s return to accepting deportations of illegal migrants from US territory), the Vice Minister of MINREX, Carlos Fernández de Cossío, expressed his dissatisfaction because the US side refused to deal with other issues besides migration.

It would not be unreasonable to think that Castroism made the same political calculation as always: to take advantage of a migratory crisis to open channels of dialogue with the White House. Any concession on the part of the United States could demand something in return, something that would not be to the liking of the Cuban government. However, since last July 11, the regime has held close to a thousand political prisoners, a “bargaining chip” that would free it from offering guarantees of greater economic or political freedoms. Biden, however, has other much more pressing matters to solve, such as Russian expansionism at Europe’s doorstep. In addition, Biden knows firsthand what making openings and concessions to Havana entails, as he was one of the senior officials (he was vice president back then) behind the “thaw” promoted by Barack Obama during his last term in office.

***

“They are human traffickers, businessmen,” Marta told Karen when they arrived in the city of Choluteca and confirmed their identities at the hotel. They would stay there for the next five days until the Christmas holidays were over. Then a coyote would take them to the rest of the group, along with Javier, who at that time was in Guatemala.

“I don’t judge them because I don’t know their motives for doing what they do. Maybe it’s the only way they have to support their families. Who knows? They’re young kids and they’re at risk, I think, every day. In the end, they are not guilty of anything. It is the rulers, all the rulers. Those in Cuba are to blame for us having to leave and those in Honduras are to blame for these kids doing these things to make a living. That is what I believe.

With the help of a coyote, the three Cuban women obtained safe-conducts, documents granted by the immigration authorities so they could travel through the rest of Central America without any issues.

“You can explore the city, but don’t go too far from the hotel and be careful,” he warned them before leaving them.

They went shopping in the nearby stores. Karen picked up two changes of clothes and toiletries at a very good price thanks to a money order sent by her relatives. Then they took a short walk around the city before locking themselves in the hotel for the next few days. Choluteca was getting ready for Christmas, and perhaps that is why everything was so brightly lit. They saw the food stalls, where they cook the rice at random, without pre-measuring the water, and the cold pasta salads are much more colorful than in Cuba and more varied, with vegetables and fruits mixed in with the pasta.

“In Cuba, no matter how hard I looked, I could never find sweets and candies for my brothers. And here, look at the number of sweets and cookies and chocolate bars in a gas station. In a gas station!”

“And look at the modern cars. I’m angry that we have to leave Cuba to realize how poor we are,” said Marta, as they bought sweets to eat at the hotel.

It took them two days to cross Honduras and Guatemala. It was a road trip by car, with practically no stopover. On the banks of the Suchiate, in northwestern Guatemala, Javier and a dozen Cubans were waiting, among whom Karen recognized some who had boarded their flight to Managua. They rode in patanas and crossed into Mexican territory, where a small caravan of cars took them to the center of a town of a few streets called Hidalgo.

They barely had a chance to rest before boarding a bus to Tapachula, where they stayed in a crappy motel and did not leave their room under any circumstances. There they counted the last seconds of 2021. They hugged each other when the festive firecrackers began to explode in the main square, announcing the beginning of the new year, and talked to their relatives on Whatsapp to tell them that they were already in Mexico and would soon be on the other side of the Rio Bravo.

The trip to Mexico City took about two days. The group of Cuban migrants was parceled out into trios, which were moved in cars to a sort of lake, which they crossed in boats, and then continued in buses to the capital. By then, the coyotes had arranged plane tickets to the northern border for their clients. Air travel is a quick and safe way to travel within Mexico, as authorities do not require documents proving legal stay in the country for those boarding domestic flights.

On January 19, exactly one month out of Cuba, Karen called her father to tell him, in tears, that she was already on U.S. soil and that the crossing through Mexicali, in northern Mexico, had been extremely easy. During that month she had traveled more than eight thousand kilometers, sometimes on foot, sometimes by plane, and sometimes by car or raft.

“We made it, Dad.”

“All of them?” asked Karen’s father.

“Yes, all of us. We’re all right. We just have to turn ourselves in. They say there’s some paperwork and that we have to be detained for a few days, but it’s no big deal. The important thing is that we are here, Dad, that we are free.”

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