AROUND THE WORLD: In Search of Freedom

Jun 17, 2021 | 2020 Summer - Connections, Around the World

By María Rodríguez, Cuban reporter and blogger, residing in the U.S

Until a year ago, I loved shows and movies about prisons: Oz, Prison Break, Vis a Vis, Papillon, The Green Mile, Orange is the New Black, etc. Now I avoid them; I know the pain of wearing handcuffs and an orange suit while being innocent. My name is María Rodríguez, I am Cuban, and I want to share my experience and that of other immigrant bi women detained in the custody of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

I was raised in a Christian home that believed in the premise of being good and just. My family had for years suffered and been mistreated by the Revolutionary Government (Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro and Miguel Díaz Canel) because of our ideology and religion. My cousin Zoe and her husband—for wanting to leave the country—and my cousin Alberto—for being homosexual—were taken to the Military Production Support Units (UMAP) in 1966. There, in those concentration camps where the Regime locked up those who did not conform to “good socialist morals,” my family knew human horror and evil.

I decided to study journalism; I would try to get justice for my family and so many others by raising my voice and denouncing the situation in Cuba. Upon graduating from university, I found myself forced to work for a state newspaper for three years as part of the obligatory Social Service and Training, the means by which the government charges us for our supposedly “free” education.

Topics related to LGBTQ+ persons could only be written about in newspapers during the week leading up to the International Day Against Homophobia, the 10th to the 17th of May, and on December 1, World AIDS Day. I was barely allowed to write news about those. I had strong testimonials and interviews with people whose lives were directly impacted; I wanted to publish them. The Chief of Information told me that no one was interested in “fags,” that the few news items we did run were only published because they were associated with the name of Mariela Castro. The Chief of Information and other colleagues bullied me, laughed at me, called me names, and did not give me important assignments.

Thus, I understood that we were still following the path of UMAP, except that homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, and the hatred of difference were now hidden under the illusion of an acceptance of LGBTQ people. The National Center for Sexual Education and its network are no more than an illusory political campaign designed to make the world believe that LGBTQ+ people are accepted in Cuba. Just look at the derogatory way that Mariela Castro recently referred to those who conduct activism outside of state institutions as “trinkets and ticks,” promoting once again discrimination and political persecution.

I started a blog, and in an act of freedom I started to write about Cuba and the stories that you can only read in alternative media and the pages of independent journalism. The government’s reaction was swift: I was fired from my job, my university degree was invalidated, I was detained and threatened. The situation became so hostile and insecure that I found myself forced to emigrate.

“God does not promise an easy crossing but assures a safe landing,” I read in an old almanac; I entrusted my steps to the Lord and escaped my island prison. I flew to Mexico in May 2019. I headed to the northern border with the U.S. and lived for two months on the Progreso International Bridge in Tamaulipas, with 104 other people waiting our turn in line to be admitted to the U.S. The wait was difficult. We were in the open under sun and rain. My skin burned so badly that I thought the damage would be irreparable. We only ate thanks to churches and good Samaritans, and we feared being kidnapped by Mexican cartels that controlled the area. At the same time, President Trump’s constant changes in immigration policy generated anxiety and concern.

On July 9, it was my turn, and I felt I was the most blessed person on earth. I had done it, I was here, I was finally free. No Castros, no Cuban Communist Party, no persecution, no state socialism, no “voluntary” required work, no unfair salaries. I filed for Political Asylum and Protection by the Government of the United States, and I was taken to El Valle Correctional Facility, an immigrant detention center in Texas.

Cubans had described the detention centers like summer camps, agreeable places where I would have to be secluded for 45 days while ICE verified my identity and an Asylum Officer organized my interview. Reality hit me hard. I was in prison. The treatment, the enormous spiked barbed wire fences, and the uniform shouted criminal, not immigrant. The first night, I hardly slept, new fears awoke, and I was afraid of not surviving the imprisonment.

We discover our true strength in the most extreme situations. I adapted to the environment, made a group of friends, and learned that it is possible to find freedom behind bars. I was transferred to the South LA ICE Processing Center, where I learned to fill out I-589 forms, to cook rice with Maruchan ramen, and the true meaning of the word endurance. In Louisiana, I met Claudia and a beautiful friendship was born.

Claudia flew on a March afternoon from Havana to Panama. In the airport in Panama she met the coyote who gave only this advice: be discrete, my girl, don’t attract attention. That was when she knew that hers would be a solo voyage.

She crossed the Darien forest with all of its dangers. In less than three weeks, she made it through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and México to arrive in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, on the Northern border with the U.S. There, early one morning, she crossed the Río Bravo near McAllen, Texas. On the far shore, American territory, a U.S. border patrol officer detained her.

In the Customs Border Patrol (CBP) office, Claudia was interviewed and had to share the reasons for her voyage. Since adolescence, she knew that she felt different from those around her. For years she loved Walter; after the breakup with him, she met Isel, and the passion was instantaneous. But it was a passion that her parents, her friends, and her society did not understand. That society knows little about love, less about diversity. She faced discrimination, biphobia, and homophobia.

Claudia developed her rebel character, opposed to all dogma and injustice. She learned to call out problems and fight them from a dissident group, becoming a leading activist in protests, social media, and postering campaigns denouncing the Revolutionary Government. Of course, she paid a price: Claudia was detained and threatened several times by the police; all her movements were tracked by followers of the regime; she was denied access to work or school, treated like a parasite, trash, shit. To her title of dissident, they added lost, stray, crazy, player for both sides, switch hitter. The State-sponsored violence against her increased, and she had no option but to emigrate.

Now here she was, asking for asylum and protection from a foreign government for her membership in a persecuted social group: the LGBTQ+ community. From the Border Patrol office, she was moved to an immigration detention center in Louisiana.

In custody, Claudia met Natasha, born in Georgia to a Nicaraguan father, whose green eyes reminded her of the Varadero beach for which she yearned. Between racism and xenophobia, in the midst of unjust immigration policy, love blossomed. Holding hands, they walked in the yard, they showered together, they publicly displayed their affection. Their relationship did not appear to bother the GEO wardens. In general, their fellow detainees respected them; a few of us even became close with them. I never saw any of the other detainees react negatively to them. In jail, many people learn to reserve judgment.

For the first time in her life, Claudia did not experience discrimination, biphobia or homophobia; she was able to recognize herself as bisexual. Two months later, both women were granted conditional freedom on bail, and now they live together as an official couple.

Since 2017, thousands of Cubans have come to the U.S. border seeking political asylum, among them many bisexual and lesbian women who have found their dreams under attack. Asylum is a form of protection that allows the seeker to remain in the United States rather than being deported to a country in which they have a reasonable fear of persecution. Persecution primarily means a violation of human rights in the form of threats of or direct acts of physical, psychological, or sexual violence, but it can also mean the accumulation of discriminations that deny access to work, education, medical care, and the like. In considering cases of asylum on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity, the circumstances and conditions of the country of origin are analyzed.

In 2018, the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) observed that change in Cuban leadership (with the installation of President Miguel Díaz Canel) and the constitutional reform brought serious violations of human rights, including arbitrary restrictions on the right to gather, denial of political association, and refusal to accept political proposals coming from dissident groups. As an example, Decree-law 370 “On the computerization of society in Cuba” established as illegal the distribution, through social media, of information contrary to social interest, morals, good manners, and personal integrity. The decree clearly represents a threat to the freedom of expression.

Likewise, various civil organizations have gathered, in recent years, multiple testimonies from Cubans who have suffered arbitrary police detention, torture, beating, extortion, illegal searches, illegal surveillance, seizure of communication equipment, the inspection of personal correspondence, the blocking of internet accounts and access, firing, and expulsion from schools. These actions continue to systematically limit the rights and the lives of Cuban social and political leaders, independent journalists, and LGBTQ+ persons identified as dissidents or members of the opposition.

Sadly, more than a thousand Cuban asylum seekers were deported from the United States back to the island in 2019. To win an asylum case is extremely difficult while you are under ICE custody. Claudia and I could have been deported; instead of a happy ending, we would be prisoners of an oppressive political system and a society where—for most people bisexuality garners extreme fear and prejudice due to the false belief that bisexuals do not know what they want, are incomplete, undefined.

In an ideal world there would be no dictators, forced immigration, biphobia or homophobia, but the reality is such as we know it, and all we can do is try to make change. Let us fight so that no more women will be forced to emigrate in order to find freedom.

Cuban women in detention in Louisiana, with María at right

Works Cited

Editors’s note: When I think about Cuba, I experience cognitive dissonance. I spent two weeks in Cuba in 2014, as part of an LGBTQ+ delegation. It was during this visit that I first met and interviewed María, and we shared conversations and a meal. During that trip, and since, I have struggled to make meaning of what I experienced.

There is a dynamic and visible LGBTQ+ community in Cuba’s largest cities and—as in the U.S.—a far more conservative and challenging climate in rural areas. Our delegation participated in pride events (parades, performances, and two conferences) in Havana, Santa Clara, and Bayamo, and we had a meeting with Mariela Castro, who—whether for reasons pure, nefarious, or complex—was clearly advocating for LGBTQ+ Cubans. Our delegation also had a few side conversations in which we were made aware that activists who were not government-endorsed were experiencing governmental repression. As outsiders, it was hard to understand what was real, and what was performance. What I do know: Cuba is complex and multi-layered. I know I do not and cannot fully understand its complexity. And I am grateful to María for sharing her story. ~Robyn

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