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Migration & Refugees

Cuban Families Grapple with Migration Reform

Farewells among family members who don’t know when they will see each other again are frequent in the Havana airport. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños /IPS

HAVANA, Oct 20 2012 (IPS) - Her voice is calm. She no longer has any question that her “destiny” is to live outside of Cuba. “My father is getting older every day. It’s time for me to help him,” the 27-year-old woman tells IPS, commenting on her plans to emigrate and become her family’s provider.

“He went to Mexico in 1992 and since then, he has been supporting the family on his own,” says the young scientist, who prefers not to give her name. “I wish I could support him in the future with what I earn here as an agricultural researcher,” she said with regret, speaking a few days before making a visit to the United States that could become permanent.

Her father, an industrial engineer, went abroad to support his family during the economic crisis that broke out in Cuba in the early 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and whose effects are still felt today.

“I wouldn’t want to repeat that story,” she says. “My mother and other relatives are here. If I get a job and the new migration law allows me to travel freely, I’ll come back.”

Many Cubans are reviewing their plans for the future as they grapple with the magnitude of change implied by the easing of travel restrictions announced by the government of Raúl Castro on Tuesday, Oct. 16. They are especially hoping that the new law will assuage the need for reuniting families that have been separated by emigration.

Cuban families “experience the migration process very intensely; it is a traumatic thing for them,” psychologist Consuelo Martín told IPS. That is why family needs should be taken into account in migration policy, which has taken a new turn with the reform of legislation that was in place since 1976.

As of Jan. 14, 2013, the red tape for travelling outside of Cuba for personal reasons will be reduced, with the elimination of the requirement for two documents: a letter of invitation from abroad and an exit permit. Now, Cubans will only have to show a valid passport – although they will also need a visa, required by the immense majority of countries.

But under the new law, special travel restrictions will remain in place for high performance athletes, government officials, members of the military, university graduates, and certain professionals and technicians.

Some of the new measures take into account recommendations that have been made repeatedly by researchers like Martín, who proposes “contextualising migration policies within the challenges of the 21st century and the economic and socio-political dynamics of Cuba today.” In fact, Cuban authorities have announced further, unspecified changes in this respect in the near future.

Emigration needs to become an increasingly “normalised” process in Cuban society, said Martín, who works at the University of Havana’s Centre for the Study of Human Health and Welfare. Generally speaking, families see emigration as a “legitimate” aspiration of one or more of their members, she said.

The Cuban émigré community spans more than 150 countries and is the equivalent of about 10 percent of the island’s current population of 11.2 million, according to analyst Antonio Aja. In 2011, the migration balance was negative for Cuba by 39,263 people, the highest such figure since 1994, according to official sources.

An estimated one in four Cubans living here have at least one family member abroad.

Decree-law 302 brings the Cuban diaspora closer by eliminating the entry permit for emigrants who have current passports, permitting them to visit for a longer period – up to three months, with possible extensions – and establishing a mechanism for those who wish to move back to the island.

But some controversial issues are still pending, such as the elimination of the category of “permanent” or “definitive” departure, and the creation of permits to live abroad. Currently, if Cuban residents stay overseas for 24 months, their departure is automatically seen as permanent, and they lose their rights and assets on the island.

“Maybe I can obtain non-permanent migration status,” said the young scientist. “I want to be with my father, who has been so wonderful.

“This whole time, he has taken care of us, compared to others who forget about the family that they leave behind,” said the young woman, who has been dealing with the absence of her father since she was seven years old. “It was very hard at first. We learned how to live with it, but we never really got over it. My mother never had another solid partner, and my father concentrated on his work.”

The psychologist, Martín, said that whenever the issue of migration comes up, “it’s always a sore spot for someone. Even when a family member’s decision to emigrate was agreed and understood by everyone, absences are felt, especially by those left behind,” she said. The human face hidden behind the statistics needs to be shown, she added.

During the initial decades following the 1959 revolution, emigration had an “ideological and political” connotation, leading to many family break-ups, even though many were subsequently reunited, Martín said. Beginning in the 1990s, the main motivation for emigrating has been economic.

Since then, family ties — between Cuba and the diaspora — tend to be maintained, with some exceptions, she noted. That is why a good number of those who emigrate come back for visits and fight for family reunification once they have settled into their new place of residence.

According to the results of studies led by Martín more than 15 years ago, “the way that family members relate to each other changed. The father or mother is physically absent, but continues to be present by providing support, gifts and economic help, and through communication by means of email and the telephone.”

Sometimes, “from here, the émigré is economically supported. For example, many young people face difficulties adapting to their new society, due to a lack of resources. Their families here support them, even though that might seem almost impossible because of Cuba’s economic crisis,” Martín said.

The youngest son of a retired woman who gave her name as Luisa María Ramírez sometimes receives remittances from his parents in Havana. “He went to Peru over a year ago, and he has not been able to prosper,” the woman, who works part-time in a privately-owned restaurant, told IPS. “Whenever we can, we send him something.

“Only one of my three children is here with me,” Ramírez said. Seven years ago, she bid farewell to her older daughter, who lives in the United States. “She hardly needed any help. Now we just want our children who live outside Cuba to come and see us, and for the one who’s here to stay with us,” she said.

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