A little more than two months after an article on the journey of Cuban exiles to the EU, we return to the subject with the voices of those directly involved gathered in Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina. With a specific focus: the LGBT community
After recounting the adventures of Cuban migrants along the Balkan route, we collected direct testimonies from Jose, 28; Ramon and his partner Luis, respectively 29 and 34; and their friend Carlos, 35 (names are fictional). What unites them is the precarious stay in one of the many squats that surround Bihac – the so-called informal settlements – but also the aversion for the regime at home, which pushed them to self-exile. But while for Jose and Carlos the main factor is political repression and economic hardship, for Ramon and Luis a further and unbearable type of discrimination suffered in Cuba was decisive: that against the LGBT community. However, they were completely unprepared to the functioning mechanisms of the Dublin system, the right of asylum in Europe, the difficulties of reaching the EU, and the violence of the Croatian police.
The reasons for fleeing Cuba
Jose: I left Cuba mainly for my daughter, everything I do is for her. The situation in Cuba is dramatic, food is scarce, there is no work... As with most Cubans, I no longer have a job since Covid arrived two years ago or so. At the moment my daughter is with her mother, but we are divorced. There is a lot of repression in Cuba. When you leave Cuba after 3 months you have to go back. If you stay abroad for longer, there are legal repercussions, you end up in jail on your return.
We left precisely because of the repression that exists in Cuba, in particular against LGBT people. People from this community cannot find work and can be arrested. We felt in danger of our sexual orientation. Sometimes they put you in jail for weeks, or even months or years. My partner was in prison for 2 months. He worked in a club as a drag queen, after his shift he was walking back home, the police saw him and put him in jail. They didn't care that this was him job. They accused him of prostitution.
Luis: During the time I was in prison I also cut myself [he shows me lots of cuts on his arms], I felt terrible.
A: The dictatorship in Cuba does not accept homosexual people. Then some families are more understanding than others.
L: For example, I only told my mom as she loves me and she accepts me for who I am, but not my dad.
A: On the street you may meet people who want to beat you or abuse you and you don't know how to defend yourself. You don't know how to protect yourself, you can't even ask the police as it's even worse. The biggest problem in Cuba is the dictatorship. There is a strong repression, which adds to all the economic problems, the fact that there is no work, that medicines do not arrive. What's more, the rights of LGBT people are denied.
J: Things were already generally very bad before Covid. The situation was especially difficult for LGBT people, who were identified as the enemy. The regime was against them, especially since Cuba is generally speaking a Christian country. With the Coronavirus the focus has only shifted, and the enemy is now the virus. Numerous protests have taken place. Covid was taken very seriously, people were quarantined, but the government failed to provide livelihoods for isolated people. For many years in Cuba we have used two different types of currencies, the Cuban peso and dollars. Before Covid, the government or I don't know which mafia started selling products made in Cuba on the American market, at a higher price. You couldn't buy much in the Cuban market, and what you could find was really expensive. There was a lot of inflation, some families could afford more because some of their family members worked in the United States. To give an example, before Covid the cost of a beer was 25 Cuban pesos, now the same beer costs 500-600 pesos, it's crazy. There were many protests in the streets, some markets were destroyed, while the police cracked down on the protests, beating and imprisoning people.
A: The situation has certainly worsened with Covid, our families didn't have food, they didn't have medicines. For this, protests began in the streets, and many were arrested and beaten.
J: I also participated in the demonstrations, the police beat me and I was in prison for 15 days. I was out of work for 2 years, before I worked as a model. When the protests started, we thought the United States could help us; but it turned out to be a false hope, they do not care. People abroad think Cuba is a wonderful place, but that's not true. There is no freedom of information. We can't choose our president, it is insane.
Carlos: I lost a 5-year-old grandson in 2021 to a medical mistake, he had appendicitis and they didn't remove it well. It is difficult to find medicines in Cuba, such cases happen often. This is why we would like to go to Europe, so that our rights are respected and to send money to our families. Then we would like one day to bring our families to Europe. We will never go back to Cuba. Staying in Cuba is like dying. There is no hope.
A: To get here in Bosnia we left Cuba and flew to Russia and then to Serbia. In Russia there is the same dictatorship as in Cuba, and moreover there they mistreat Cubans, they treat us like animals.
J: I arrived in Russia 8 months ago (I arrived there by plane, the round trip costs 1000 Euros) with my younger sister, she had a contract there but then it expired and she had to return to Cuba. In Russia we cannot have the documents in order, it is our destination only because the visa is free for us. That's where I discovered that some Cubans were making this whole journey to get to Europe.
L: In fact, we were only in Russia for a month and worked illegally, then we left immediately.
J: Many Cubans fly to Serbia because a visa is not required anyway, then they continue to Montenegro and from there they reach Greece. In Greece, you buy a ticket for Spain and reach the EU. It works like this: a double is found in Spain, and this person sends their ID to their Cuban alter ego in Greece. In this way at the airport many Cubans, having passports and speaking fluent Spanish, are able to pass undisturbed. I had found a double for me too, but it cost too much (about 1000 Euros) and then the Greek authorities started to understand the mechanism and do more checks. As soon as I arrived in Serbia I thought of going to Greece immediately, but I was told that the situation was problematic there, it was not easy to leave the country. So in Serbia I found another Cuban young man who explained to me how to do it, where to cross the border and how to get to Europe.
A: We stayed in Serbia for 3 months, we didn't earn much and we had an illegal factory job there too. Then we crossed the border on foot to get to Bosnia. We have been in Bosnia for about 2 months; we tried the game 3 times.
J: Many Cubans crossed the border from Serbia to Bosnia by river, in a boat, and paid a Cuban guy to accompany them. I, on the other hand, did not go by boat, I crossed the border on foot, but at 5 in the morning the police found me and took me here to Bihac.
The Croatian police and the game
A: The situation with the Croatian police is a disaster, I didn't think there was such a thing in Europe, I couldn't imagine it. We met the Croatian police three times, we were with women and they didn't beat us, but they stole all the things we had. But some of my Cuban friends were beaten. We were so scared and didn't know what to do, we kept quiet and crouched down in fear. They stole our food, water, money. I was so scared and it was so traumatic, even the trip to the mountains, very tiring. When they deported us to Bosnia they put us in a van and I kept throwing up. We have asked for asylum in Croatia every time and the Croatian police told us “go, go, aide”.
J: I didn't expect the Croatian police to be so bad. After crossing the border from Serbia to Bosnia it was really easy, so I thought that in 10-15 days I would be able to reach Italy or Spain. I thought it was like going from Cuba to Nicaragua and from there to the United States, which is quite simple, you pay the smuggler and get there quickly. But when I first tried the game, I realised it was really hard. I have only tried twice, the third time I absolutely want to be successful. I know people here have tried 7-8 times, it's crazy. Cubans have a tendency to always follow the same paths, which is why the police catch them. I know the route thanks to other people who have given us suggestions. We tried it with women, with children, but the police didn't care.
A: During a game we were with women and one of them was sick, she had trouble breathing. We contacted the IOM for asylum in Croatia, they called the police who sent us back to Bosnia.
J: The last time some Cubans tried, they hid in the forest and then called the IOM, which alerted the Croatian police. The police arrived and deported them to Bosnia. IOM officials said there was nothing they could do about it. I think my experience with the police was bad, but not as bad as some friends I met who told me they were beaten and all. The police stole my belongings and left me in a place I didn't know without food or whatever, that's why I'm afraid to try the game again. Plus, the cops locked us up in a van. I am claustrophobic, I have a lot of problems if I am in places with no air or windows. Their van tossed us here and there, I threw up several times.
A: No one has warned us about the journey, we exchanged some information only between Cubans, but nothing specific. We spent only a few days in Sarajevo and not in the field, then we immediately came to Bihac. We also went to Banja Luka where it was actually quiet, the city is clean and no one stopped us. In Mostar, on the other hand, we perceived hatred against migrants.
Expectations in Europe
L: In Europe we would like to find asylum, to be able to live peacefully. We want to look for a place where there is no discrimination due to our sexual orientation. Both in Spain and in Italy, that's fine, the important thing is to be in peace.
A: I know that in Valencia there are many Cuban restaurants, I have a diploma as a cook, and I would like to work in a restaurant.
L: I will probably go to Italy because part of my family is in Treviso; i would like to work in gay clubs there too.
J: I would like to stay in Italy for a while, I have friends in Trieste and Rome (they've been there for 10 years), but I could also go to Spain.
C: Fortunately I have a boyfriend in Spain that I want to reach and who I'm sure will help me.
J: I don't really care where I go, I just want to have documents in order. I am willing to do any job. If I can have the documents in Italy, I will stay there. When I have the documents, I wish I could be reunited with my daughter. I cannot bring my ex-wife because we are divorced, but I am convinced that she will agree to separate from her daughter because she realises how serious the situation is in Cuba. Cuba is truly a disaster.
Ramon asks: Do people in Europe know the situation of Cuban migrants? If they did, maybe they would welcome us. And then our culture is not that different, we are also Christians. The important thing for us is to keep hope.
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