For Rene, Miami has been a lonely place since his wife died eight years ago.
Although the 78-year-old from Guantanamo, 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 to live there.
“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 Guantanamo.
“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 Raul 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 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.”
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 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.
That last reason is the case of 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.”
Residing in Cuba, living somewhere else
In fact, most of the people who have or want to regain their residence 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 residence, 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, 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 residence is to keep the government from denying them 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.
Most of the returnees bring their own money, however, and in many cases plan to invest in a small business like a hair salon or a family restaurant.
“People take clothes and medicines from Miami and sell them there,” to make ends meet, Manuel said.
He added that Cuban immigration officials usually ask the would-be returnees if they plan to invest in a business, what they plan to do on the island, why they are returning and what kind of jobs they have in the country where they live.
He said he told his interviewer that he wanted to care for his mother, but overheard another man applying say that he was “sorry he fell for the lies of imperialism, and that living in the United States was not what he had expected.”
“I chatted with that man and it was all a lie. He just wanted to enter Cuba and still live in West Palm Beach,” he said.
The right to buy and inherit property
Manuel said he believes the repatriation system is illegal and “can only have been conceived in the macabre mind of the Castros.”
“How can I lose my rights as a Cuban just because I go to live somewhere else?” he asked. “No one understands why you need to repatriate yourself to your own country.”
The word repatriation also angers Beatriz, a Miami woman who left Cuba 25 years ago but still regards the island as her motherland.
“I want to regain my rights as a Cuban citizen,” said Beatriz, who started the process last year. “For example, the right to inherit my mother's house. Here, I have a good salary and a house that I am still paying for. But my family house is in Cuba, and we could lose it.”
The right to inherit and purchase properties is among the rights recovered by Cubans who regain their residence.
“That's attractive, being able to buy a property,” said Beatriz. She said she does not consider investing in Cuba to be risky, and that she lost no property when she left because she lived with her mother, who kept the house.
“It would be more risky to give money to another person to buy a property for me,” she added. “You take a risk with anything you do. Right here in Miami, many of my friends lost their homes during the housing crisis.”
Her short-term plan is to retire in Cuba.
Cancer drove Armando to return to Cuba in December 2016. A year earlier, he was diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer. He underwent a risky surgery, complicated by an infection.
Now totally recovered, Armando said in an interview from New York that after eight surgeries and a round of chemotherapy, his wife abandoned him and took their son.
“I was left alone, without money, without being able to get out of bed or do anything,” he said. He lost his job, his medical insurance and then his disability payments.
His mother in Cuba obtained a humanitarian permit from the Cuban government to take him to the island.
As a foreigner in Cuba, he initially had to pay in U.S. dollars for his treatment at the Ciro Garcia Clinic in Havana. So he decided to regain his residence and continued his treatment at the Oncology Hospital, also in Havana, paying in pesos.
He stayed on the island for four months and recovered, but never planned to stay.
“I begged God not to leave me there, that I did not belong in Cuba,” Armando recalled. He said he could not get accustomed to all the shortages, especially of food, and the bad service.
“What we Cubans are doing is trying to recover the rights they took away from us. No other country takes away your rights if you leave,” he said. “I believe it was a mistake to punish us like that.”
For Manuel, the welcome he received from Cubans and the possibility of getting to know them was a plus.
He said Cubans joke than when someone used to leave the country they would say, “Lola, traitor.” But now they say, “Lola, bring dollars.”
Manuel said he does not believe the return of Cubans will lead to immediate changes, but he does see it as an opportunity for Cubans on the island to learn about the lives of others who live abroad.
“This raises a question. Why did everyone abroad do better?” he said.
Cubans who return also regain the right to vote, he concluded, and may have a voice when political change is possible.
This is the first of a two-part report
Follow Sarah Moreno on Twitter: @SarahMorenoENH