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My Mothers Family Relatives In Cuba



But this option is entirely inadequate for people withrelatives in poor health, and even worse for those with multiple family memberswho are ailing. Saray Gómez, for example, visited herfamily before her father died in January 2004, and as a result is now restrictedfrom visiting her mother who is also seriously ill.[159]




My Mother’s Family Relatives in Cuba



The visits can also provide acritical respite for relatives in Cuba who are taking care of an illness, as inthe case of Marisela Romero and Andrés Andrade above. SantiagoHernández, for example, is anxious to provide a break for hissixty-six-year-old sister who is caring for their ninety-six-year-old mother in Cuba. The mother has cancer and his sister is exhausted from bearingthe full responsibility of taking care of her, he says. There arecurrently no other relatives in Cuba who can help her.[168]


President George W. Bush initially continued the trend ofeasing the requirements for family-related travel, introducing, in March 2003,new regulations that established a general license, which allowed individualsto travel to Cuba to visit family once a year, without requiring them to seekspecial permission. The 2003 regulations also allowed individuals to apply forspecific licenses to make additional visits each year, and allowed visits torelatives “no more than three generations removed from that person or from acommon ancestor.”101


The regulations also limit the definition of “immediatefamily” to mean “any spouse, child, grandchild, parent, grandparent, or siblingof that person or that person’s spouse, as well as any spouse, widow, orwidower of any of the foregoing.”107Excluded are aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, cousins, and other such relatives,no matter what role such persons might have played in an individual’s lifebefore the separation. The new regulations also prohibit individuals fromsending money or care packages to anyone other than a parent, grandparent,child, grandchild, sibling or spouse. They also limit the quantity andfrequency of such gifts per receiving household, where before they had beenlimited per individual (allowing people to send multiple gifts to singlehouseholds, as well as to non-relatives).108


Romero had left Cuba in 1992, and after her mother andsister both died in 2002, the only remaining relatives who could take care ofher ailing father were her nephew and his wife. Romero hired two people tohelp them and began making frequent trips to Cuba so that she could pay thesehelpers, bring money and supplies, and, perhaps most importantly, provide her fatherwith filial affection. “Whenever she came he became very contented,” MarisolClaraco, her nephew’s wife, told Human Rights Watch. “Because even though hehad Alzheimer, he knew who she was. … She would lie next to him and talk tohim, and he would feel her love and get better.”112


Afterthat reunion, Seoane returned to Cuba seven or eight times to visit his family,until his last visit in March 2004. His parents looked forward to these visitsand were greatly distressed when the new travel restrictions went into effect. Seoane’s mother recalled her husband’s reaction: “When he found out that hisson would not be allowed to travel for three years, he said ‘Oh, my lord, whenwill I see Leandro? From now to when Leandro comes, I don’t know what couldhappen.’ You see, he foresaw that he wouldn’t ever see him again.”131


Although he had become a U.S. citizen, he maintained closeties with his family in Cuba, sending money every month to his sons and otherrelatives, and visiting once a year—and even more often when his father fellill. His last visit was in April 2003.


The restrictions have also hurt her financially. “I’mlosing lots of money,” she said. When she traveled to visit her hospitalizedmother, the airfare was much more expensive than it would have been flyingdirectly to Cuba, she said, “and this means less money for my family.”150 Moreover, she added, “you always have that terrible fear that if they catch youyou’ll have to pay” a fine.151


It is undoubtedly true that many Cubans, including some ofthe ones we interviewed, traveled regularly to Cuba for holidays and specialoccasions. “Saray Gómez,” for instance, a sixty-two-year-old schoolteacher who left Cuba in 1970, traveled to Cuba three times a year—for herfather’s birthday in March, her mother’s birthday in August, and atChristmastime. Yet she and several of the Cubans we interviewed bristled atthe suggestion that they traveled to Cuba simply for pleasure. “My family isthe most important thing to me,” she said.155


But this option is entirely inadequate for people withrelatives in poor health, and even worse for those with multiple family memberswho are ailing. Saray Gómez, for example, visited her family before herfather died in January 2004, and as a result is now restricted from visitingher mother who is also seriously ill.159


WhileCubans in the United States can still communicate directly with relatives inCuba by telephone, calls to Cuba are exceedingly expensive (because of theembargo), and do not compensate for the lack of direct human touch. Sometimescommunication by telephone isnot even an option. “Johana Suarez,” age sixty-four, had been travelingto the island every year at Christmastime to see her mother, who iseighty-eight, sick, and alone. Unable to travel because of the restrictions,she tried calling her mother on Christmas in 2004. But her mother’s ability tospeak had by then deteriorated to such a degree that when she got her on thephone and said “It’s me, your daughter,” there was complete silence on theother line.167


The visits can also provide acritical respite for relatives in Cuba who are taking care of an illness, as inthe case of Marisela Romero and Andrés Andrade above. Santiago Hernández,for example, is anxious to provide a break for his sixty-six-year-old sisterwho is caring for their ninety-six-year-old mother in Cuba. The mother has cancer and his sister is exhausted from bearing the fullresponsibility of taking care of her, he says. There are currently no otherrelatives in Cuba who can help her.168


For those with no relatives who fit the definition of“immediate family,” traveling is not an option. The administration hasdefended this restriction by trivializing its impact. “[W]hat are we supposedto say to them?” As already noted, Roger Noriega, while serving as assistantsecretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, told one reporter. “We’regoing to continue to allow this money to be shoveled into the coffers of aregime that’s going to keep them in chains under a dictatorship becausewe want to preserve the right of people to visit their aunts?”170


But for many people Human Rights Watch spoke with the impactcould be quite significant. Saray Gómez, for example, is concerned that,should her ailing mother die, she will then not be able to obtain permission tovisit her seventy-five-year-old aunt, who is also in very poor health. “Apparently for [President Bush], aunts and uncles are not family,” she said. “[But] I love her as though she were my mother. She helped raise me. She didn’thave kids. We were her kids.”171


In addition to aunts and uncles, others told us of closerelatives who did not qualify as “immediate family” under the newrestrictions. Ignacio Menéndez, age fifty-five, came to the United States on the 1980 Mariel boatlift, with his wife, who was forced to leave behindthree children from her first marriage because their father prevented them fromleaving. Menéndez says he was very close to the three children and that theysee him as their “true father.” Since the 1990s, he and his wife have visitedthem in Cuba once a year, but they will not be able to engage in family-relatedtravel again until 2007. He is especially concerned about histhirty-three-year-old stepdaughter who was diagnosed with lymphoma last yearand whose recovery, after four operations, is far from guaranteed.175


Ivonne Acanda no longer has any relatives in Cuba who fit the Bush administration’s definition of “immediate family,” but she does havenumerous uncles, cousins, and nephews, as well as relatives of her husband,whom she considers part of her family. One of them is her husband’s nephew,now in his mid-20s, who was run over by a train in 2002, losing one leg andbadly damaging the other. Since the accident she has traveled to Cuba three times, bringing him medicine, and she has sent medicine through couriers whenshe could not travel herself. She is anxious now to travel so that she canbring him a wheelchair and to visit the other relatives who are not part of her“immediate family,” because, she says, “blood is something that pulls you.”176


The lies were necessary because any perceived ideological flaw could potentially mark a family as counterrevolutionary, an enemy of the revolution. Having a relative in jail for opposing the revolution; communicating with relatives in a Western country, especially the United States; having had a great deal of money or influence under the previous regime; believing in God and openly going to church; and wanting to leave the country could earn one the label of counterrevolutionary. Once so branded, life in Cuba became even more difficult. A mistake that would cause anyone else to receive a reprimand could land a counterrevolutionary in jail.


(From left to right) Margarita Porto, Raul Porto Jr., and Betty Porto are the second generation of Portos to run the family business. This photo was taken in 1966 in Cuba and they are posing with cakes made by their mother, Rosa Porto.


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