Cuba: Off the Island

Lygia Navarro, for the Pulitzer Center


In Havana, people are accustomed to having to get in line early in the morning to achieve anything. The day I leave, I arrive at the airport before sunrise, exactly two hours before my flight, as I have been told. Like the rest of the passengers—mostly Mexican, European and American tourists—I end up sitting on my bag for nearly an hour waiting for the gate agents to arrive at work. To our right is a separate line of dozens of Cubans preparing to move to the United States. They all carry large white plastic bags with their visas, printed with the logo of the International Migration Organization, and wear their best clothes, mostly tight jeans and metallic-printed t-shirts.

Once we have all passed security, I sit at the gate and watch a Cuban man in his thirties standing with his young son. Both are wearing suits and black dress shoes, like a vision from another era, when air travel was the highlight of your year and you dressed for the event. The father has the sun-baked face and humility of someone from the Cuban countryside, a guajiro, and as he turns away to buy a piece of candy for his son, I notice that his dark blue suit has a long hole running down his back. The image leaves me overwhelmed with sadness at the reality that, in order to provide some measure of a comfortable life for their children, so many Cubans are forced out of their own country.

A few minutes later we all line up to board the small Mexicana Airlines plane. To get on, we must pass two more levels of security, showing our boarding passes not only to the airline staff, but to the three government guards standing at the door to the ramp. The guard who checks my documents has the dark circles and eternally frustrated gaze of so many of his compatriots, and I wonder if he, too, takes sedatives to sleep at night.

On the plane the flight attendants whisper complaints to each other about the Cubans, most of whom have no idea how to read their boarding passes or find their seats. They are all headed to different states, depending on where they have family or friends. The couple next to me tells me they are headed to Washington State, before gripping each other's hands as the plane takes off and then promptly falling asleep. They have never been on a plane before.

When we arrive in Cancun, the clusters of sleeping families awake to gather their bags and small children, and are carted off by special Mexican guards who will hand-deliver them to their gates. (For the past few years, Cancun has been the center of human smuggling from Cuba, with smugglers spiriting Cubans off the island on speedboats and then bribing Mexican officials to move them through Mexico to the U.S. border.) The rest of us pass through immigration, where an official asks if we want to avoid having our passports stamped with a second entrance into Mexico—a clear sign of having been to Cuba.

A couple in line behind me from San Francisco says "yes," and the official escorts the man away from the line. The transaction was as simple as could be, the couple tells me later. The official took the man into the men's room, asked for $25 per passport, and then slipped a piece of paper inside, so that his coworker in the booth could have something to stamp to make the transaction look real.