Local Cubans talk trip to U.S.

Cati Vanden Breul

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On Nov. 9, 2001, in the cover of darkness, Lisardo Torres and four other men departed Cuba in a boat and started a dangerous journey that would eventually bring them to the United States.

Torres, with hopes of a new life in America, said he was threatened, imprisoned and detained before arriving in Houston a year after he fled.

Like many Cubans who’ve left the country since Fidel Castro seized power and installed a communist dictatorship in 1959, Torres’ journey was hard, but has paid off.

Two months after he arrived in Houston, he was joined by his wife, who secured a flight to the United States while visiting a relative in Italy. After Torres’ cousin, who came to the United States in 1998, learned the 30-year-old was in the country, he and his wife invited the two to live with them in Richfield.

Cubans make up fewer than one-half of one percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2000 census. Out of 1.2 million, 490 live in Minneapolis.

Though their journeys and reasons for coming here are varied, they share one trait: the ability to start over.

A difficult journey reaps rewards

Torres spent a year of his life trying to reach the United States.

Shortly after he and his friends departed Cuba, a storm washed them up on an uninhabited island and destroyed their boat. They fashioned a makeshift raft out of what was left and again headed to sea in hopes of making it to the United States.

But before they could reach the coastline, a commercial ship picked them up and dropped them off in Haiti, where the Haitian government gave them two choices. They could either be sent back to Cuba or take political asylum in Haiti. The group accepted the offer to be sent back to Cuba, but planned to sneak across the Haitian border into the Dominican Republic.

They paid a few Haitians to smuggle them out of the country, but didn’t have enough money to pay off the Dominicans waiting at the border. They told the men guarding the border they had a contact outside of the Dominican Republic who could wire money to pay for their entry.

Torres would spend the next 11 months in the Dominican Republic.

A woman in the countryside offered her house to the fleeing men as a temporary shelter where they could devise a new plan.

But they weren’t safe yet. When Dominican officials learned they were in the country illegally, they threw the men in prison. Fortunately, a Cuban prison worker, who had a good relationship with the government, was able to secure their release and place them in homes around the country.

Once free, Torres found a job in a hotel and sent the little money he could back to his family in Cuba. He eventually saved enough to buy a Dominican passport – his eventual ticket to the United States. With the passport, under a fake name, Torres booked a flight to Jamaica that stopped in Miami.

To prevent him from staying in Miami, the airline had a flight attendant accompany him. Torres, determined to remain in the United States, hid inside a bathroom for two hours while airport officials called his name over the loudspeaker.

When Torres emerged and told immigration officials he was Cuban, they shut him in an air-conditioned office for 11 hours because they didn’t believe him.

“I think it was because they were trying to break me down if I was lying,” Torres said through his cousin’s wife Shelley Quiala, a University alumna who acted as his interpreter.

After singing Cuba’s national anthem and answering questions about the country, immigration officers accepted his story and put him in touch with an association of Catholic churches that helped find him a place to stay in Houston, where he had friends.

Cubans don’t have to jump through as many hoops to work legally in the United States as other Latin American immigrants, Torres said. He said he got a work visa and social security number almost immediately.

Torres and his wife moved to Minnesota after about a year of working odd jobs in Houston. He started out driving delivery trucks. Now, three years later, he owns his own semi-cab and contracts out delivery services.

Reasons for leaving economic, political

Torres said he left Cuba in part because he was frustrated with his inability to advance economically under the communist system.

“There are a lot of things I don’t agree with here as well, but I work better in this system,” he said through the translator, “because there’s more economic opportunity here.”

St. Paul resident and retired social worker Maria Gomez and her husband, who moved to North Carolina in 1960 when Gomez was 19 and pregnant, knew they couldn’t be successful under Castro’s communist system, she said.

Because her husband had an engineering degree from North Carolina State University, he was able to find a job quickly.

“We never thought we’d stay here,” Gomez said. “We didn’t think Castro would last long, and here we are, 46 years later.”

Her husband was offered a job with 3M in 1975. They’ve lived in the Twin Cities ever since.

Gomez said disagreements with Castro’s communist ideology played a role in their decision to leave their home behind and start over in the United States.

“It became clear to us as early as 1960 that this was a regime that wouldn’t allow freedom,” she said. “Either you’re with them or against them.”

University librarian Rafael Tarrago immigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1966, when he was 14.

When Tarrago came, it was easier for Cubans to immigrate to the United States than it is today, he said, but the process was still lengthy.

Tarrago requested permission from the Cuban government to leave the country – a two-year process. Then he traveled to Spain with his passport, and from there he flew to Boston.

Tarrago’s parents joined him and his brother, who was already in Boston, the next year. His father, whose cosmetics business was shut down under Castro, found work as a pharmacy technician in a hospital. Meanwhile, Tarrago learned English, went to a public high school and worked as a bus boy to save money for college.

Life after Fidel

Now that the health of the longtime Cuban dictator is deteriorating and Castro has transferred power, at least temporarily, to his brother Raul Castro, speculation is rampant about the future of the country.

“That’s the crystal ball question,” said University political science professor David Samuels. “I wish I had (a prediction). I’d be a rich man.”

Most hope for a peaceful transition, Samuels said, but the situation could turn chaotic – or even bloody. He said the key transition will happen after Raul Castro, who is already 75, dies.

“No one expects him to govern another 40 years. He’s merely a bridge to some other system,” Samuels said.

After Raul Castro is gone, a new generation of leaders will need to maintain control and may face problems with legitimacy, because, unlike the Castro brothers, the new leaders won’t have participated in the revolution.

If the civilian and military authorities within the communist regime stay allied, the transition will likely be smooth, Samuels said.

“If they’re left fighting for resources, that’d be a problem,” he said.

Tarrago said under Raul Castro, Cubans might see more economic freedom, such as the ability to own small businesses.

“But I don’t think he’d allow much more for political freedoms,” he said.

It’s unlikely Cubans will rise up against the new government, because of the long tradition of repression Castro has imposed over the last half-century, Tarrago said. But Cubans are afraid of losing their homes to Cuban exiles who might return to reclaim property in a post-Castro country, he said.

The transfer of power to Raul Castro will probably do little to stop the U.S. embargo on Cuba, Samuels said, because the United States has said it will not negotiate with anyone from the Castro family.

“It takes two to tango,” he said.