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MIGRATION-ECUADOR: Cubans Find Door Half Open – Part 1

Gonzalo Ortiz*

QUITO, Jul 29 2010 (IPS) - Carlos sold his house, Juana got a divorce so she could remarry and obtain resident status, and Pedro bought a “letter of invitation” with 10 years of savings… These sorts of stories are common amongst Cubans anxious to make a new life in Ecuador.

What does Ecuador have that they want? It is perhaps the only country in the world that does not require Cubans to obtain an entry visa, and offers the chance — after some paperwork — to settle there permanently.

The government of President Rafael Correa declared a policy of free entry into the country in 2006 and abolished the visa requirement for citizens from any country. All visitors are authorised to stay 90 days.

The Ecuadorean Embassy in Havana does not track how many Cubans have travelled to this Andean nation, because most do so as tourists, and if they stay fewer than 90 days there is no record of their visit. But migration officials in Quito state that subtracting the entries and departures of Cuban citizens since 2006, the immigrants — documented or not — number around 7,800.

Although the influx of visitors from Cuba began in 2006, the boom occurred in 2008 and 2009 when 38,000 Cubans travelled to Ecuador. In the first half of 2010 there were already more than 13,000.

Even so, it is not easy for a Cuban to get to Ecuador. To begin the process to travel from the socialist-run island requires an up-to-date identity card, a letter of non-objection from one’s employer or school, and a letter of invitation meets the set requirements.

Such letters must be written personally by family members or friends residing in Ecuador, in a document duly certified by a notary public, which costs 100 to 200 dollars. Then it has to be legalised at the Cuban consulate, which is entrusted with sending it to Cuba, at an additional cost of about 200 dollars.

In Cuba, it is delivered to the recipient through an official international body of the Ministry of Justice and is valid for one year from the date it was granted. The word in Cuba is that there are many “friends” who will send the letter of invitation — for a price.

With those papers, the traveller can obtain an exit permit from Cuba, a document known as the “tarjeta blanca” (white card), which costs 150 Cuban convertible pesos (known as CUCs). On top of that, a passport is needed, valid for two years, which costs 55 CUCs, and an extension costs 20 CUCs. The total comes to about 222 dollars, based on the official exchange rate.

The fact that nearly 60,000 Cubans have visited Ecuador since 2006 shows that all those obstacles are surmountable. And there are plenty of seats on the five direct flights from Havana to Quito weekly, and 12 more via Panama.

In this Andean capital it is easy to pick out what has become the stereotype of Cuban immigrants: new white training shoes, dark-coloured jeans, and heavily decorated T-shirts, which seem to be popular among Cuban men and women alike.

Cubans have become part of the urban landscape in the three neighbourhoods where they have concentrated. Most live near the Quito airport in La Florida district.

“Pure coincidence — it has nothing to do with the United States,” Quito historian Alfonso Ortiz said, referring to the southeastern U.S. state of Florida, where Miami is located, home to nearly one million Cubans and their descendants. Here, Florida “is the name of an old estate dating back to the Spanish colonial era,” he explained.

Today this neighbourhood has many bars and restaurants, salons, bakeries, tailors and other businesses — all run by Cuban men and women.

“When I arrived, I stayed with a Cuban friend here in the neighbourhood, and then I was able to rent a place in this area,” said Diocles, 46, who spoke with IPS in the doorway of one of the restaurants.

He talked about trying to obtain his official papers to stay here. “I have to move forward however I can,” he said, directing the statement at another Cuban, in his fifties, who asked not to be identified.

Just then, a small van from the refrigeration company “Quba” pulled up in front of the restaurant. Its two occupants entered the restaurant. Both Cuban, they said they have their documents in order, which allowed them to open a workshop. They didn’t give their names, but said they are working “very happily.”

However, there are others who have stayed in Ecuador illegally. “I’m working as a security guard, with 48-hour shifts,” said another man dining in the restaurant, who had been hesitant to speak from the beginning. “I don’t have papers, which I know is risky, but I have to make a living,” he said.

In a grocery on Mañosca Street, in north-central Quito, IPS interviewed two more Cubans. This is another area where many Caribbean families have settled, though Cuban-run businesses are not as visible here.

They preferred to give only their first names. “I’ve been in Ecuador two years and haven’t yet sorted out my papers,” said Juan Antonio. However, Pedro has obtained Ecuadorean citizenship by marrying a citizen of this country.

This channel for obtaining legal residency has led to hundreds of “marriages of convenience,” which end in divorce as soon as the citizenship documents arrive.

“I paid 1,000 dollars for the marriage, and have to pay another 500 for the divorce,” admitted Pedro, adding that he has not seen the Ecuadorean woman he married since the wedding. “It’s all done through a lawyer,” he said.

* Patricia Grogg in Havana contributed to this article.

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