Though US-Cuban relations have been defrosting, many Cubans remain determined to reach American soil. DW talks to Cubans en route to the US and still at home about the future of emigration under President Donald Trump.
In the courtyard of an orange safe house, a group of Cuban migrants are planning a party.
As Blanca Tellez Gonzalez perches on a plastic lawn chair, a hairdresser helps dye her hair for the soiree.
“I may be on the road, but I have to keep up my appearance,” said the 32-year-old Blanca. “My boyfriend is waiting for me in the US.”
Tellez Gonzalez has just arrived in Panama City from the jungle in the country’s south. She is only one of thousands of Cubans travelling through Central America in the hopes of a better life in the US.
According to the Pew Research Center, more than 46,000 Cubans arrived as of October 2016, the highest number in two decades.
Unlike migrants from other countries, Cubans who reach the American border benefit from an expedited asylum process under the Cold War-era Cuban Adjustment Act. New arrivals receive a work permit and special welfare assistance, as well as the ability to apply for permanent residence after 366 days in the country.
With the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, warming political relations threaten to overturn pro-Cuba immigration policy.
President-elect Donald Trump’s election win on an anti-immigration platform is another concern for would-be Cuban migrants. The former reality TV star campaigned on promises to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and build a wall along the US-Mexico border.
Nonchalance trumps worry
Unfazed by Trump, the Cubans are determined to continue their march northwards. Some are certain they will be welcomed by the new administration.
“Cubans are the reason Donald Trump got elected,” said Tellez Gonzalez, when asked about the president-elect. “He won’t change anything. I think he will welcome us with open arms.”
Fifty-four percent of Cuban-Americans in Florida voted for the Republican nominee in the November 2016 elections, double the rate of the state’s other Latino communities.
Smoking a cigarette beside the makeshift hair salon, Ariel Padron Gomez has been travelling for two months. Bound for Houston, the mechanical engineer hopes to find better employment options to the north.
“Most of the people I have met on the road are young and educated – doctors, engineers, nurses,” the 27-year-old told DW. “There are no opportunities for us in Cuba, but the US needs educated immigrants. Trump knows that.”
According to a September 2016 survey, a Cuban worker earned an average salary of 687 pesos (27 euros, $29) per month in 2015.
A proud nationalist, Esmilcy Gomez Camacho admits that her decision to migrate to the US is motivated by economics, not political oppression.
“As a Cuban, the revolution is in my blood, but I want a better life for my children,” explained the single mother, travelling with her 16-year-old and five-year-old sons.
“I’m not afraid of this wall Trump claims he will build. He can’t force Mexico to pay for it.”
Party planning gives way to discussions about the remainder of the overland journey through Central America. Border closures are common along the route and even if the migrants do manage to cross, they risk being robbed, kidnapped, raped, and even killed before reaching the US.
“I am more worried about the coyotes [people smugglers] than Trump,” said Abraham Ramos Rodriguez, who is joining his wife and daughter in Miami. “They can steal your money or even kidnap you for ransom.”
‘Just another American president’
Meanwhile, people in Cuba are torn between seizing the opportunity to travel to the US or stay behind. According to the United Nations Development Program, the island nation ranks 67th out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index.
Tomas Mora has lived in Cuba his entire life. While Castro’s death saddened the 77-year-old, he isn’t concerned about Trump.”
Cuba’s allies keep losing elections, but Latin America needs to stick together,” explained the former taxi driver and flamenco musician. “Cuba is prepared to face four years of Trump. But our neighbors? I don’t think so.”
During an open training session at Rafael Trejo Boxing School in the Habana Vieja neighborhood, boxer Noel Hernandez spars with a friend. Unlike many Cubans of his generation, the 28-year-old has no desire to leave his country.
“We’ve been resisting since 1959. It’s how [Cubans] are,” he told DW. “Trump is just another American president. It’s good that US-Cuba relations are better now, but we still don’t know what they want from us.”
Across town in Miramar, Andy Jose hangs out at the Malecon seafront, swinging his fishing rod. The 14-year-old, who currently can’t afford the 53 pesos for bait, dreams of becoming a civil engineer.
“I want help to Cuba keep the revolution alive with my work by helping to design and build houses,” he said. “We [Cubans] will keep Fidel Castro’s ideas alive.”
The American dream despite Trump
For some, Trump’s arrival signals a shift in American policy towards Cuban immigrants – likely set to make it harder for them to claim asylum.
Outside his Soviet-style apartment building in Miramar, Eduardo Alvarez* talks about soccer with friends. The computer technician is already planning to leave for the US, hoping to arrive before Trump implements his anti-immigration agenda.
“I want freedom. [President Barack] Obama’s visit made that dream more real,” said the 32-year-old. “Trump is the worst scenario for us.”
Daniel Castillo* plays with his classmates on the Malencon esplanade. Despite his goal of achieving the American dream, the 14-year-old is seemingly apathetic towards American politics.
“I don’t care about Trump – I just want to leave Cuba. I don’t see a life here,” he said, afraid to admit his desire to leave, due to fear of repercussions.
Despite being only 144 kilometers (90 miles) from the US, many Cubans make the long journey to the US through Central America. Migrants intercepted in boats in the Florida Strait are repatriated under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that requires Cubans to successfully reach American soil to claim asylum.
However, young Cubans aren’t the only ones who aim to travel northwards. Waiting to receive meat at the government distribution center, housewife Gloria Morales* laments that most of her family has been scattered around the world.
“We suffered a lot during the mid-80s and 90s. Cuba now is better. We have more food and freedom, but I still cannot see my family,” said the 61-year-old retired teacher. “So, I’m planning to leave. I’m saving money, but I’m not young, so the boats or other dangerous ways aren’t a possibility for me.”
A determined nation
Back in Panama, Marigledys Castro Arrebato joins the party planners in the courtyard. Two months pregnant with quintuplets, the 25-year-old plans to make it to the US before giving birth to ensure they will be US citizens.
“I want my children to have American passports,” she told DW. “Trump has threatened to change this law, so I need to make it to the US even if I have to crawl across the border.”
The group is supportive. “We’ll make sure you get there on time,” added Blanca Tellez Gonzalez. “Let’s say he does build that wall. That’s a long border. How is Trump going to stop people as determined as the Cubans?”
*Names have been changed for security reasons.
Additional reporting by Mauro Pimentel.