Raul Prado, 35-year-old cinematographer, and his wife Aidana Hernandez Febles, 31-year-old actress, have just left for Miami.
“Emigration is an idea that crosses the minds of all Cubans at one time or another,” said upset Raul, a thin man with a dark beard. But “I never thought of emigrating.”
Disappointed hope drove them there. In three years they have seen the mobile Internet broaden their horizons and turn their daily lives upside down, allowing a generation to open up to the world and a very young civil society to emerge.
Before being stopped dead in their tracks by the communist authorities who have since tightened the screw. Meanwhile the country has plunged into its worst economic crisis in almost 30 years.
Every month, like them, thousands of Cubans go into exile.
But the story of this couple illustrates a new phenomenon on the island: that of a generation of young, qualified, committed people who give up fighting at home and choose exile, depriving the aging country of its elite.
– Migratory flux –
Since the reopening of the Cuban borders on November 15, 2021, almost closed for ten months due to the pandemic, the migratory flow has been incessant.
Thousands of inhabitants desert, mainly through Central America where they arrive by plane to then go up on foot to the American border, but also by sea, on makeshift boats.
According to US Customs, more than 113,000 Cubans arrived in the country from Mexico between October and April. In the United States, Cubans have a special status: even in the event of illegal entry, they can regularize their situation according to the 1966 adjustment law which grants them permanent residence after one year on American soil.
Sociologist Rafael Hernandez evokes a “silent Mariel”, a reference to the mass exodus of 130,000 Cubans between April and October 1980.
If the figures continue to climb, it will be the largest wave of migration in 63 years of revolution, in this country of 11.2 million inhabitants.
Emigration “increases and among it the emigration of young people who have studied at university”, recognized recently, in the official press, the scientist Agustin Lage, fervent defender of the revolution.
It was the time of hope on the island.
On January 27, 2019, a tornado hit Havana, killing three people, injuring 172 and causing a lot of damage. “A battlefield,” said Raul to himself, who immediately mobilized friends and acquaintances via Facebook and Whatsapp.
Mobile internet was activated a month ago in Cuba – one of the last countries in the world to do so – and the young man realizes the power of networks: their small apartment, in the residential district of Miramar, becomes the Disaster relief headquarters where food and clothing are stored before being distributed.
The citizens’ initiative may seem banal elsewhere but it is unheard of in Cuba where only the authorities have the right to act in this kind of situation.
A civil society was born, a connected and informal network of young Cubans, including many artists, determined to act outside the official framework.
“After the tornado, there were other things and we always organized ourselves” via the internet, continues Raul.
Defense of LGBT rights, animal welfare, fight against violence against women… they express themselves on the net and begin to hope that in the street, they will also be able to speak freely.
November 2020 marks a new stage when members of the San Isidro protest movement broadcast live via Facebook a brilliant action in Havana to obtain the release of a rapper.
The following day, some 300 artists gathered spontaneously in front of the Ministry of Culture to demand more freedom of expression. Among them Raul and his friend the playwright Yunior Garcia, who with his youthful air and his eternal glasses on his nose becomes the standard-bearer of this new critical generation.
Taken aback, the police let it go. Unprecedented in the recent history of the island.
“What happened today is historic,” said Yunior, a member that day of a commission responsible for negotiating with the authorities, in vain.
– “Angry generation” –
It will have been only a parenthesis.
This July 11, 2021, Raul and Aidana, Yunior and his wife, theater producer Dayana Prieto, are preparing spaghetti to watch the Euro football final, when they discover that thousands of Cubans are demonstrating in the streets of the country to the cries of “We’re hungry” and “Freedom”. In these spontaneous parades, we also hear “Down with the dictatorship”.
Once again, the young protesters held a rally in front of the Cuban Institute of Television (ICRT). They require 15 minutes of air time to launch a call for national dialogue.
But this time it’s repression.
More than 1,000 people were arrested in these demonstrations which left one dead and dozens injured in around fifty cities. In Havana, in front of the ICRT, the demonstrators were evacuated, some violently loaded into a garbage truck and taken to the police station.
Arrested, Raul and Yunior are released the next day. But they remain in the crosshairs of the authorities.
When via the Facebook group “Archipiélago” (Archipelago) Yunior calls for a march on November 15 to obtain the release of political prisoners, he is blocked at home by plainclothes agents, like other dissidents.
The massively deployed security forces prevent the demonstration from taking place. The playwright is warned by the police, he says: if he persists, he will spend 30 years in prison.
More than 700 protesters have already received sentences of up to 20 or 30 years. Yunior and Dayana choose exile, in Spain. Other artists will take the same path.
“My generation is not afraid, they are angry,” Aidana says, looking determined behind her bobbed brown hair. “And that anger turned into pain.”
– No future in Cuba –
For Raul and Aidana, the decision is made when she learns that she is going to be a mother. She does not want “to give birth here”. He knows that if he stays he will “continue to get involved” in political activities that risk affecting his family: “it would be irresponsible of me to subject them to that”. For her, the trip begins on the 30th january. This does not obvious. On several occasions in recent months, the authorities have prevented young critics or protesters, whether dissidents, journalists or artists, from leaving the country.
Six months pregnant, she went to Spain, obtained a Schengen visa, the key to entering Mexico, paid a smuggler who took her to Mexicali near the American border and entered the United States at night after a four-hour drive. .
With his American visa, Raul joins her later after completing his work as director of photography on the film “Riquimbili or the world of Nelsito” by Fernando Pérez, the greatest Cuban director today.
“It’s really sad,” he told AFP before his departure, “I’m making a decision that I always refused to take.”
– Aging country –
These young people “feel that they have no future in Cuba. Or, to put it better: they do not want to continue living without freedom of movement (…), without spaces to express themselves and exercise their rights to think differently or to protest,” explains director Fernando Pérez.
This emigration “is the worst that can happen to us as a country”, he continues.
Because Cuba is thus losing a whole well-educated generation, which will probably not return on its own or will not be able to do so – in recent months dissidents who wanted to return home after a time abroad have been refused entry into their country.
This is enough to deprive the country of an intellectual elite and professionals capable of directing the island’s large companies.
“These people who are leaving now, Cuba cannot, must not make them” permanent migrants, warns Antonio Aja, director of the Center for Demographic Studies at the University of Havana, otherwise “the situation will become unsustainable “.
The island is already one of the countries with the oldest population in Latin America: 21.6% is 60 or older and since 2020 there are more deaths than births.
In Miami, where AFP found her, Aidana gave birth to a little Bastian.
“When I look back, when I look at the Cuba I’m leaving, I’m convinced I made the best decision because at least I feel there are opportunities” here. But, she says, “I’m not going to stop being Cuban.”