HAVANA, March 24th Last July, Rafael decided to get a provocative tattoo: a faded Cuban flag across his calf above the words “Patria y Vida”, or Fatherland and Life –
the title of an anti-government anthem that went viral on the Caribbean island that summer.
That decision triggered a string of frightening confrontations with Cuban police – and ultimately prompted him to flee the country, leaving his two young children behind.
Rafael is one of the thousands of Cubans who have left the island since the largest anti-government protests in 30 years erupted spontaneously in cities across the country on 11 July.
Well-known dissidents have been able to secure visas or receive asylum from various countries, primarily Spain and the United States, over the past six months while still in Cuba.
But many ordinary Cubans whose first political act was taking to the streets last July have begun to leave the island as well, seeing self-exile as a better option than prison.
Those with enough money for a plane ticket – often one to two thousand dollars –fly to Panama or Nicaragua and ride buses up through Central America.
Now Rafael and thousands of other Cubans are stuck in Tapachula, a sweltering town near the Guatemala border, while they wait for the Mexican government to issue documents allowing them to travel up to the United States border where they will apply for political asylum.
Tens of thousands of people joined the July demonstrations. Many of them were peaceful, but others threw rocks at police officers, overturned police cars and set them on fire. Chants of “¡Patria y vida!” rippled through the crowds.
The crackdown that followed was swift. In the months after the demonstrations, several of Rafael’s friends were detained by police who showed up unannounced at their homes. One has already been sentenced to 10 years in prison for “sedition”.
At least 1,470 people have been arrested for participating in the demonstrations, according to the human rights group Justicia. Some have been sentenced to up to 25 years in prison on sedition charges.
Rafael feared that his tattoo – and his presence at the protests – would lead him to the same fate. After hearing the protesters’ shouts, Rafael had walked to the central plaza in the city of Camagüey. He joined the crowd but said he did not throw rocks or fight with police officers as many others did.
“I don’t know if they [Cuban authorities] know I was out on 11 July. I live near the park where the protests happened; that was going to be my excuse for being there,” Rafael said. “I got stopped twice by police on the street because they saw my tattoo, and I was given two formal government citations. I started thinking maybe I would get arrested.”
But Rafael refused to stop posting anti-government memes on Facebook, even after the Cuban government passed a new law in August, Decreto Ley 35, prohibiting anti-government rhetoric online. Punishment for posting can be years in prison.
Rafael’s family became worried for his safety and eventually pooled their money for his plane ticket.
In the first two months of 2022 alone, nearly 30,000 Cubans attempted to enter the United States, most of them through Mexico. Data from prior months shows an average of between one and two thousand a month.
Some are escaping Cuba’s economic crisis, as shortages have led to mass hunger, and the Cuban peso has effectively lost half its value in the past two months.
But many, like Rafael, have fled the island for fear of being sentenced to years or even decades in prison.
Waiting outside the office of the Mexican Commission for Refugees in Tapachula’s 90F heat, one Cuban woman fanned herself with her folder full of documents. The woman – who declined to give her name in case she is deported back to Cuba – said she fled the country after protesting on 11 July and was having trouble securing her documents in Tapachula.
She still needed to apply for refugee status in Mexico, the first of many bureaucratic steps necessary to leave the city and move north. But eventually, she planned to finish her journey to the United States through illegal means. “It’s expensive, but I’m going to go to Mexico City and hire a coyote to take me over the border.”
If she chose to enter the United States through a legal route, she would face a backlog of asylum claims, thousands of cases long. At the land border, the chance of gaining asylum for Rafael and the rest of the protesters is about 20%, if similar to other Cubans’ cases in recent years.
“I probably won’t return to Cuba,” Rafael said. “I love my country and I want to see my kids, but I won’t. All I can do for them now is go north and look for a way to make some money so I can send it back.”