HAVANA — Francisco Jesús Jiménez misses a lot of things about the United States. He misses his five kids. He misses his car. He misses his phone. He misses walking the streets of his old neighborhood in Flatbush, Brooklyn — “better known as Crooklyn,” he says — where he felt free to speak his mind.
Jiménez was broke in those days, working as a hospital janitor before he turned to drug dealing. But he remembers New York fondly, keeping a baseball cap with the city’s initials tacked to his wall. Now, sitting on the edge of a cot as he sips coffee and smokes a parade of cigarettes, he remembers the day in 2002 that he landed back in Havana with just 100 pesos in his pocket to start over as a deportee after two decades in the U.S.
“I weighed 195 pounds when they sent me back here,” said Jiménez, 58, pointing to stretch marks on his now-skinny legs. “I went from tiger to kitty-cat.”
Cubans are the seventh-largest immigrant group in the U.S., making up 3 percent of the total foreign-born population. But Jiménez is one of only about 2,200 to be deported since at least 1980 because the Cuban government refuses to accept the vast majority of its deportable nationals.
Some 28,400 Cubans with criminal convictions are indefinitely awaiting removal from the U.S., many of them under supervision by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But last year, ICE expelled only 42 — less than 1 percent of total deportations. The anomaly is one of the many unusual results stemming from the break in diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba back in 1961.
In a 1984 agreement, the U.S. and the Castro government settled on a list of 2,746 individuals living in the U.S. who could be sent back to Cuba, according to the Department of Homeland Security. All but a few hundred have been deported.
An ICE spokesman declined to speculate about the future of deportation policy for Cuban nationals. The Department of Homeland Security, however, classifies foreigners with criminal convictions as a high priority for removal.
As U.S.-Cuba relations thaw, Cubans may face deportation more often. And Jiménez’s difficulty finding housing, food and work raises questions about whether the Castro government is ready to handle an influx of tens of thousands of deportees any time soon.
Grisel Ybarra, a Miami attorney who says she’s represented more than 1,000 Cubans facing deportation over a two-decade career, claims she’s never lost a case. But after the U.S. and Cuba re-established diplomatic relations last year and President Barack Obama took the unprecedented step of visiting the Communist-governed island last month, she expects the two countries will eventually work out a process to send more deportable Cubans back.
“It’s like a tsunami,” Ybarra told The WorldPost. “It’s coming.”
You Can Go Home Again
Since the Cuban Revolution ended in 1959, migration has flowed almost exclusively in one direction: out.
Hundreds of thousands of government opponents, largely from Cuba’s upper and middle classes, fled the island during the revolution’s first few years, followed by subsequent waves of migrants from all social classes.
The U.S. government encouraged the trend by offering permanent residency and a pathway to citizenship to Cubans who made it to American soil after one year, whether they arrived legally or not — a policy first codified under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act and today known as “wet-foot, dry-foot.” Cuba, where foreigners account for 0.1 percent of total residents, is in a six-way tie for smallest per-capita immigrant population in the world.
Most of the Cubans the Castro government agreed to take back came to the United States when Jiménez did, in 1980, when thousands of people stormed the Peruvian embassy seeking asylum. Some crashed cars through the gates to get inside. When six Cubans stole a bus and broke through the gates, then-head of state Fidel Castro ordered steamrollers in to tear down the embassy’s fences, vowing not to risk the lives of state security agents to protect it.
Anyone who wanted to leave, Castro said, could go to the port of Mariel outside Havana and board a boat to South Florida. Some 125,000 Cubans took him up on the offer in an episode known today as the Mariel boatlift.
Perhaps to stick it to the U.S. government or perhaps to relieve the island of people Castro viewed as a burden, Cuba released several hundred convicted criminals from prison and sent them to Miami along with those claiming refugee status.
Jiménez, who says he was serving a six-year sentence for stealing a bike, was one of them. He saw his expulsion from Cuba as a blessing. He remembered wanting to learn English and live in the United States since he was a kid.
But many in Miami viewed the Cubans who arrived in 1980, dubbed “Marielitos,” with suspicion when they found out Castro had sent hundreds of criminals among them. The stigma found a mainstream audience with the 1983 film “Scarface,” which tells the story of a Marielito who rises to become a farcically violent drug lord.
Miami filled so fast with Cuban migrants that authorities were forced to erect temporary tent encampments to house them. Jiménez, along with some 15,000 others, was sent to a processing camp at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, before moving to a halfway house run by the Minneapolis archdiocese six months later. He eventually settled in New York, where he found work as a hospital janitor.
The job didn’t last. Looking to make more money, he started dealing drugs, eventually following a group of Cubans out to California, where he was busted for selling crack in 1998.
“In 22 years, I worked about five or six years, then the rest I started selling drugs because I got kids,” Jiménez said. “I’m not trying to excuse myself, because that was wrong. But I start selling drugs … And now I can’t redo my life. I didn’t sell drugs to honest people, but they were people anyway.”
In 2002, he was deported.
‘If You Have A Tourist Guide, He Won’t Bring You Here.’
Fourteen years after returning, Jiménez still hasn’t fully adapted to life on the island. He hasn’t held a formal job in years and his ration card doesn’t keep his stomach full. Cuba’s health care system has gained an international reputation for the quality of its preventive care, but the island’s lingering economic crisis means common medicines are in short supply, so his meaty knuckles ache from untreated arthritis.
Having spent much of his life butting against authority, Jiménez chafes against the country’s towering security apparatus and the one-party political system that forces many to temper their criticism of the Communist government he resents. “Of all the rights a human being has to be free, I can only exercise half of them in here,” he said. “But I can never give up that mentality.”
And then there’s his housing situation. Were it not for a young girl playing jacks on the ground floor’s cracked concrete the day I visited, Jiménez’s apartment building in the working-class neighborhood of Cayo Hueso would have appeared abandoned.
The handrails to the wide staircase sag toward the ground. Warped two-by-fours offer meek support to balconies that look ready to cave in. Authorities evacuated the top-floor residents from the three-story building years ago to keep it from collapsing.
Inside Jiménez’s apartment, the walls are pockmarked with six-inch square holes. A black electrical cord running the length of the one-room apartment serves as both a clothing line and a place to hang food. If he wants water — to cook, make coffee or flush his dry toilet — he has to go outside to fetch it.
“If you have a tourist guide, he won’t bring you here,” he said. “The government don’t give a fuck about us.”
Literally Falling Apart
If Jiménez has had trouble getting used to life in Cuba again, it’s partly because the island wasn’t exactly ready to receive him. Cuba’s decrepit buildings have a stuck-in-time allure that attracted 3 million international tourists last year, including a growing number of Americans. But even as Airbnb establishes itself in Havana and more Cubans take advantage of the newly acquired ability to buy and sell up to two homes, housing remains one of the Castro government’s most intractable problems.
The Castro government enshrined the right to a home as a core aspiration of the revolution with a 1960 law that halved rents for most Cubans, put renters on a path to homeownership, banned home sales and made the government the sole entity allowed to charge for home rentals.
Consistent out-migration has acted as an “artificial valve” to relieve growing pressure on housing that started after Cuba went through a baby boom in the two decades after 1960, according to Harvard historian Alejandro de la Fuente. As people fled the country, their houses stayed behind.
But the government didn’t prioritize constructing new homes, and if more deportees are sent back to Havana, authorities probably won’t be able to provide adequate housing, de la Fuente said.
“It’s been several decades since many of these buildings have received even cosmetic maintenance,” he said. “Many of them are literally falling apart … The Cuban government cannot even keep up with the housing needs of people who are already in Cuba, much less people coming back from abroad.”
This lack of resources at least party explains why the Castro government has moved so cautiously when it comes to accepting more deportees from the U.S.
“The Cuban government has very little incentive to accept any of these people back, given all the economic problems the country is going through — the lack of housing, the lack of jobs,” Ted Henken, a professor who researches Cuba at Baruch College in New York, told WorldPost. “And these people come with a double stigma — they have criminal convictions and they’re Cuban-Americans.”
Cuba does have its own immigration demands that could form the basis for an eventual agreement over how to handle deportations, however. Cuban officials have long pressed the United States to abandon the “wet-foot, dry foot” policy, contending it promotes dangerous illegal immigration and brain drain. A George W. Bush-era program that gives special incentives for Cuban medical professionals to defect from the island also infuriates authorities in Havana.
“As the relationship is normalizing, it’s inevitable that there has to be a serious discussion about immigration procedures,” said Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a bipartisan think tank in Washington. “All kinds of them. Not just deportations, but the thousands of Cubans coming across the southwest border and benefiting from the Cuban Adjustment Act.”
Waiting For The Americans
Finding a good job has been just as difficult for Jiménez as finding a decent apartment. Cuba is still struggling to rebuild the manufacturing and industrial sectors of the economy that collapsed in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. The port at Mariel where Jiménez fled to the U.S. 36 years ago has been reinvented as a special economic zone. Cleber LLC became the first U.S. company to operate there, announcing plans to construct a tractor factory in February.
Those developments don’t much interest Jiménez. Even the best state jobs are paid in national pesos. The average salary is roughly equivalent to $25 per month, according to NPR. He says his attempts to get a state job as an interpreter failed because of the suspicions raised by his time in the U.S. — the country viewed as the island’s most pressing security threat until U.S.-Cuba rapprochement began in December 2014.
Instead, Jiménez has pinned his hopes on tourism’s black market, hustling as an informal guide — a class of people known locally with some derision as “jineteros.” He takes visitors to the Museum of the Revolution or arranges trips to the white-sand beaches of Varadero. A couple of days’ worth of tips can easily top an average monthly state salary.
Many international visitors worry that renewed U.S. interest in Cuba will ruin the charm of a place largely bereft of corporate billboards, American fast food chains or morbid obesity. Not Jiménez. He said he “cried like a baby” when officials hoisted the U.S. flag over the embassy on Aug. 14, 2015 for the first time in half a century. After Obama’s visit, he hopes, more Americans will follow, and they’ll hire him as a tour guide because he speaks nearly flawless English and understands U.S. culture. The Castro government might liberalize a little too, he cautiously predicts.
“You know my biggest dream? To wake up one of these days and look out my window right there and see McDonald’s, IHOP, Wendy’s,” Jiménez said. “Then I’ll know America’s here.”