HAVANA — Yanit Torres Lopez has already plotted his escape from Cuba. When the time is right, he will tie together a bunch of car tires and cover them with a wood board attached to a makeshift boat motor. He will round up a few other men and meet them at a nearby beach in the dark of the night, when the police won’t see them. They will enter the water with their flimsy raft, aim for Florida, and hope for the best.
Torres, 35, doesn’t expect the journey to be easy. Many of his friends who have made the trip in recent years have warned him about the sharks, the burning sun and the government boats from both countries searching for rafters. But he knows that staying here presents its own perils -- a future with little economic hope and a shuttered view of the outside world. And he knows that if he manages to place one foot on American soil, his whole life will change: As a Cuban, he would automatically be granted legal residence and all the benefits that come with that status. He would finally be “free,” he says. It’s one of the few English words he knows.
“We are depressed here, the whole country; we have nothing,” he says on a recent afternoon as he sits outside his family's small apartment in Havana. “You have a job or you go to school, and you can travel the whole world. You have freedom. But all we know is our provincial life. We are stuck here.”
Even as recent government policy changes have made it easier to earn a living in Cuba and some Cubans have embraced the potential of a new economic order if the United States lifts sanctions that have kept a chokehold on growth for decades, this basic view remains intact: Cuba is a poor island nation not far from the wealthiest shores on earth, giving impetus to the sort of seafaring adventurism that Torres now contemplates. Last year marked the highest level since 2009 of Cubans risking their lives to journey to the United States for the first time, according to U.S. data. In all, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted 481 Cubans in homemade boats and rafts in December 2014, a 117 percent increase from December 2013.
Why exactly more Cubans are leaving is the subject of some debate. Some suggest it’s because people are worried the recent reopening of relations between Havana and Washington, D.C., will end the so-called wet foot, dry foot policy that allows Cubans to live legally in the U.S. if they successfully make it to shore. No other immigrant population is afforded such an advantage, and some predict the rule will change if Cuba’s failed economy is transformed by U.S. dollars. Obama administration officials, however, have vowed to keep the policy.
“We are at a five-year high right now for Cuban migration,” said Ryan Doss, a Coast Guard spokesman, in a recent telephone interview. “A lot of that was rumors in Cuba that the Cuban migration act was possibly going to come to end. Once people realize that it’s here to stay, I think things will kind of normalize. We will continue to see people come over in steady numbers, but not this spike.”
Since Fidel Castro, the leader of the Cuban revolution who seized control of Havana in 1959, ceded the presidency to his brother Raul in 2008, the Cuban government has gradually loosened its control over its population. Cubans can now own small businesses and conduct commerce more easily. But most still earn low wages that barely cover the costs of basic goods such as food and clothing. Cubans who do live well tend to survive on money sent from relatives living in the United States, Spain, Italy and other countries.
Regardless of how people here live, they are cognizant that others not that far removed -- just one risky float away -- are enjoying relative opulence. The contrasts gnaw away at some Cubans, fueling a willingness to endure the risks of the ocean and reach for better.
“We are closed off from the world,” Torres says. “We don’t have American [TV] channels. We have three Cuban channels on the television. And that’s all we know of the world. If tomorrow the government said, ‘We are opening up the airport. There is no fee, you can leave,’ there would be no one left in Cuba.”
'There Is Nothing Here'
Torres is among those who have lost faith in the Cuban government. “No one believes in the revolution anymore, no one,” he says. “That’s 56 years and what of it? There is nothing there.”
For 12 years, Torres worked as an exterminator for the government, pumping deadly chemicals into the homes of his neighbors, his skin sometimes breaking out in rashes from the toxins. The work was unpleasant, but he showed up every day to earn his monthly paycheck of roughly $40, nearly twice what the average Cuban makes in a month. He spent his money on gently used sneakers, an occasional beer and food.
Then, nine months ago, the government announced that pest control workers’ wages would be reduced to $8 a month. There was no explanation. Torres quit the next day.
Torres shares a two-room apartment with his father and brother, as well as his sister and her husband and their five children. His aunt and uncle also lived there until recently. It’s loud and sometimes hard to sleep with so many people living in such a small space. A typical meal at home is a portion of rice and a few boiled eggs.
The location, however, can’t be beat, Torres says. The crumbling apartment building where he has always lived is located across the street from the Malecon, Havana’s waterside promenade where Cubans spend hours meandering, flirting, kissing and otherwise making the most out of life in an impoverished and crowded city.
Torres spends most days along the picturesque Malecon, sometimes buying honey-dipped donuts from a man selling homemade snacks from a bicycle, or slipping into the turquoise water for a quick swim. But that will soon end. The government told his family it had plans to bulldoze their apartment building to make room for a hotel with ocean views. Torres says it was another sign that he must leave Cuba soon.
Sometimes, Torres likes to walk up to the pale-skinned European and North American tourists scattered across downtown Havana and persuade them to have a snack with him, his treat. When he is successful, the conversation, he said, provides a glimpse into foreign worlds always just beyond his grasp.
“Tourists, they don’t understand,” he says. “They think we talk to them because we want their money, but all we want is to talk to someone from a place we’ve never been and ask, ‘Is it cold there? What does it look like? What does the cold feel like?’”
No Easy Way Out
Whatever the pull, the reality of leaving Cuba -- not on some jet at the airport, but on a flimsy raft launched from a moonlit shore -- is enough to keep most Cubans at home.
Dany de la Cruz, 32, is among a growing class of Cubans making a living from tourism under the Castro regime’s new small-business laws. A decade ago, he combined spare parts to make a bici-taxi, a long bicycle outfitted with multiple seats for transporting visitors and residents alike.
He spends most of his days taking foreigners to the handful of tourist sites in Havana, attractions rarely frequented by Cubans: the baroque cathedral built in the 16th century, when Spain ruled the country; the grandiose Capitol building, where the government once flexed its hold over a pre-revolution Cuba; the historic plazas filled with white-cloth restaurants the average Cuban cannot afford.
The fare he collects helps him purchase used American sneakers, keep his cell phone turned on and go dancing in the local nightclubs from time to time. De la Cruz earns less than $25 a month.
He has distant cousins in Florida he has never met. He wishes he had relatives abroad who would send him money to pay his cell phone bill and buy more food. He dreams of taking foreign vacations, living in a big house and earning enough to comfortably pay his bills.
But he would never take the risk of illegally leaving Cuba, he said.
“People here, they are used to this, this is what they know,” Cruz says. “To leave their friends and family, their culture, their home, that’s hard to imagine. Things are getting better now. These new relations with the U.S., it could change a lot, bring a lot more money. People could be more comfortable.”
'This Is For Me'
The dream of a thriving Cuba could also see Cubans who did make it overseas in recent years return home for a second chance.
Armando Perez moved to Barcelona 10 years ago, when he was 35, after growing tired of making a life in Cuba on his meager earnings as a mechanic. His mother had married a Spaniard years earlier and helped him travel to Spain.
When he first arrived in Spain, he was shocked by the many economic and cultural differences. In Cuba, where Internet is limited and cell phones are considered a luxury, it’s rare to see someone buried in their phone. But in Spain, everyone -- especially younger people -- seemed addicted to their electronic devices, with teenagers on the subway clacking away on their phones as they sat next to one another.
“Why can’t they just talk to each other,” Perez says.
Advertisements for commercial products were at every turn, and shops brimming with things to buy lined the streets. When his mother asked him to go with her to shop for clothes, he protested. “You already have clothes,” he told her.
The political system was new, too, with heated, robust debates between the local and national governments and rival political parties. In Cuba, he said, “the politics are a joke. It’s all fixed.”
But he missed home, where he could walk the colonial streets of Havana and bump into friends with whom he attended grade school. He longed for his seven siblings, who stayed behind in Cuba to start families of their own. He missed Cuban music: sultry jazz, soulful Salsa, and the thumping rhythm of the bongo drums.
When people in Spain asked him about Cuba, he praised his homeland’s free education and medical systems. Then he usually launched into his favorite topic: Cuban women. Cuban women, he said, are curvy and like to dance, enough to make a man cross an ocean and return home.
He began traveling to Cuba for longer and longer vacations. Then, a year ago, he invested his savings from working as a waiter in Spain into a small home outside of Havana near the coast. One of his sisters cared for the property when he returned to Spain, but he couldn’t get his familiar life in Cuba out of his mind.
“People here, they say, ‘I want to get out.’ They see it in the movies and they think everywhere else is paradise,” Perez, 45, says on a recent afternoon as a he drinks a beer and smokes cigarettes made by the government in a Havana bar owned by the government. “They don’t realize how things are on the outside. You have to work hard. I tell them, in Spain, you have to pay for everything, the rent, the light, the water, the trash. They laugh and say, ‘What do you mean you have to pay for the trash?’ Because, you know, here you just put the trash outside and the government picks it up. But I tell them, ‘Yes. You have to pay for the trash collection.’ They don’t believe me. I don’t try to convince anyone to stay in Cuba. I tell them what’s it like, but they have to see it for themselves.”
By next year, Perez hopes to have saved enough money to retire permanently in Cuba. He could never live anywhere else again, he says. “Money does not make you happy," he says. "There are rich people who aren’t happy.”
After finishing his beer at the bar in Havana, Perez walked into the crowded, narrow street outside. Minutes later, he passed a friend he had known for more than thirty years. The man lit him a fresh cigarette and promised to visit him at home soon. “What did I tell you,” Perez says. “I know everyone here. I love Cuba. This is for me.”
'A Chance At A New Life'
But in a country as poor as Cuba, nostalgia and longing can be luxury items often dispensed with in pursuit of pragmatic concerns like food. A restless population of young men and women facing limited economic options all but ensures that Cuba will continue to lose people to the United States and other more affluent countries.
Samuel Dominguez, 34, painted his 1957 Ford Fairlane bright yellow last year and began offering tourists rides to and from Havana’s international airport for $20 each way, more than he made in a month in his previous job as an elementary school cook. He works to care for his elderly parents and his two sons, ages 10 and 5. His cousins traveled through a third country to arrive in Miami five years ago. One handles luggage at Miami International Airport, the other volunteers for experimental medical tests for cash.
“They are doing well,” Dominguez says. “They both got cars, about $1,200 each, not new, but they have cars. Here, they didn’t even have bicycles.”
Dominguez doesn’t drive his taxi in Havana at night because he is afraid someone will attack him for the $20 he carries to provide change to passengers. His taxi is not officially registered with the government, which would otherwise demand $30 a month from him in taxes, as well as inspection fees ranging from $5 to $10 a week.
He knows life in the United States would bring a new set of problems, but he imagines it would be worth the risk to leave everything he has ever known behind.
“It’s hard to say I would leave Cuba, because it’s not possible right now,” he says. “But you hear about life there, you work, you get an apartment, you get a car, you make money to support yourself. It’s a chance at a new life.”