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Thousands of exiles exploring unusual option Returning to Cuba

Issued: 2018-03-12

By Sarah Moreno

March 12, 2018 03:30 PM

For Rene, Miami has been a lonely place since his wife died eight years ago.

Although the 78-year-old from Guantánamo, Cuba, lives with his daughter and granddaughter, he’s alone most of his time. So in July, he asked for Cuban government permission to return.

“The loneliness kills me,” said Rene. “The end of the road for old people here is an institution because the family cannot take care of us,” he said. “And that would be the worst that can happen to me.”

Rene came to Miami in 2004 as a political refugee. He is now a U.S. citizen but wants to reunite with his two sons, four brothers and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren in Guantánamo.

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“I don't regret coming here. If I say that, I would be ungrateful,” said Rene, who spent five years as a political prisoner in Cuba. “But in Cuba, life is different. You move around and you talk to people. Here, you can spend a month and not see your neighbor.”

Rene and most of the other Cubans interviewed by el Nuevo Herald for this story did not want to provide their real names for many reasons, including the fact that many are waiting for Cuba’s approval for their return. They form part of a trend that has been growing since the migration reforms that Raúl Castro launched in 2013.

Under those reforms, Cubans who left and were called “emigrants” by the government can now apply for “repatriation” to regain residence and its benefits. They apply at the Cuban consulates in the countries where they live, or at the Interior Ministry on the island.

That does not mean they can recover any properties confiscated when they left Cuba. The government usually seized the homes of people who emigrated “definitively.”

Twenty-eight miles west of Havana in Mariel, one of the biggest economic development projects in Cuba history is taking shape. Cuban officials hope to attract sustainable industries, advanced manufacturing and high-tech companies to the Mariel Special Economic Development Zone. Their plans depend heavily on attracting foreign investment to the zone, which adjoins the Mariel container port. One U.S. company that wanted to locate in the zone was turned down but three other U.S. projects are in advanced negotiations. Emily MichotMiami Herald

Cuban government figures showed 11,176 Cubans applied for repatriation in 2017, most of them living in the United States. In November 2016, the head of the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington said that 13,000 had applied. A similar figure, 14,000, was used by Juan Carlos Alonso Fraga, head of the Center for Population and Development Studies at the National Statistics Office, during a TV appearance.

“They are of all ages, of both genders, although the majority are older than 50,” Fraga said, adding that the trend of 2016 was continuing in 2017.

The Cubans interviewed by el Nuevo Herald gave very different reasons for their decision to return to the island.

Some, like Rene, want to spend their last years with family in their home country. Others need medical care, and still others want to buy or inherit a home, retire in a place where the cost of living is cheap or even engage in political activism.

For Iliana Hernandez, an activist in the opposition organization Somos+ who returned from Spain in 2016, “I did it because we have to educate Cubans to lose their fear, to use my attitude to show that we can demand our rights through non-violent struggle,” said Hernandez, who gave her real name.

Hernandez, who has Spanish citizenship, said she lives full time on the island but travels abroad “to breathe a little bit and live in democracy.”

In fact, most of the people who have or want to regain their residency say they don’t plan to live on the island. The 2013 migration reforms also allowed Cubans to live abroad for up to 24 months without losing residency, its benefits or their properties.

“It's all a matter of money. A large majority is not repatriating because they want to live in Cuba, but because it allows them certain economic advantages,” said Manuel, who started his application earlier this year but plans to continue living in Miami.

The advantages include cheaper passports. A Cuban living in the United States must pay $400 to obtain a Cuban passport, but a resident pays only $100. Renewals of the document, required every two years, cost $200 for Cubans living abroad but only $25 for residents.

Returning Cubans also have the right to bring in a shipment of household goods without paying import duties. Once there, they can also import goods for personal use and pay in Cuban pesos rather than hard currencies.

Manuel, 39, said he expects to benefit from the lower costs for passports, but added that his main reason for seeking Cuban residency is to keep the government from denying him the ability to reenter the island.

“I don't want to be like Ofelia Acevedo,” he said, referring to the widow of activist Oswaldo Payá, who lives in Miami. She has been denied re-entry to Cuba while her daughter, Rosa María Payá, has been allowed to travel between Miami and Havana.

“When you emigrate, the government can deny you entry to the country. But when you're a resident you can enter as often as you want,” he said. “In fact, you live in Cuba even though you live in Miami.”

Cuba's requirements for regaining residence include having someone on the island who promises to house and feed returnees until they can provide for themselves.


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