Outside the sun is blindingly hot, and in the immigration office 100 people are sweating profusely. But no one complains. A critical word, a demanding attitude, could end in punishment. So we all wait silently for a “white card,” authorization to travel outside Cuba.
The white card is a piece of the migratory absurdities that prevent Cubans from freely leaving and entering their own country. It is our own Berlin Wall without the concrete, the land-mining of our borders without explosives. A wall made of paperwork and stamps, overseen by the grim stares of soldiers. This capricious exit permit costs over $200, a year’s salary for the average Cuban. But money is not enough. Nor is a valid passport. We must also meet other, unwritten requirements, ideological and political conditions that make us eligible, or not, to board a plane.
With so many obstacles, receiving a “yes” is like hearing the screech of the bolts pulled back on a cell door. But for many, like me, the answer is always “no.” Thousands of Cubans have been condemned to immobility on this island, though no court has issued such a verdict. Our “crime” is thinking critically of the government, being a member of an opposition group or subscribing to a platform in defense of human rights.
In my case, I can flaunt the sad record of having received 19 denials since 2008 of my applications for a white card. I left an empty chair at every conference, every award ceremony, every presentation of my books. I never received any explanation, only the laconic phrase “For now, you are not authorized to leave the country.”
But it is not only dissidents or critics who suffer these mobility restrictions. Hundreds of doctors, nurses and health professionals whom the government values too much to risk losing know that choosing those professions means they will save lives but will be unlikely to see other latitudes. They have seen their families separated, their children go into exile, while they wait for the authorities’ approval to leave. Some wait three years, five years, a decade, forever.
The blacklist of those who cannot cross the sea is long, and though the information is never published, we all know how the system works. And so we don masks of conformity before the watchful eyes of the state, hoping to achieve the cherished dream of crossing national boundaries. The exit permit thus becomes a method of ideological control.
A few days ago Ricardo Alarcón, president of the Cuban Parliament, told a foreign interviewer that the government is studying a radical reform of emigration. But we all know how the Cuban government utilizes the euphemism “we are studying” to buy time in what could become a wait of decades.
In reality, these same authorities are unwilling to give up this rich industry that brings them millions of dollars a year in fees for entering and leaving the country. The rumors fly but the locks never open.
A year ago, for example, as I was applying for permission to attend an event in Spain, the news “broke” that Cubans would soon travel freely. When I asked the official handling my request if it was true, she sneered at me, “Go to the airport and see if they let you leave without a white card.”
That same afternoon, as I was issued one more denial, my cellphone rang insistently in my pocket. A broken voice related to me the last moments in the life of Juan Wilfredo Soto, a dissident who died several days after being handcuffed and beaten by the police in a public park. I sat down to steady myself, my ears ringing, my face flush.
I went home and looked at my passport, full of visas to enter a dozen countries but lacking any authorization to leave my own. Next to its blue cover my husband placed a report of the details of Juan Wilfredo Soto’s death. Looking from his face in the photograph to the national seal on my passport, I could only conclude that in Cuba, nothing has changed. We remain in the grip of the same limitations, caught between the high walls of ideological sectarianism and the tight shackles of travel restrictions.
Yoani Sanchez is the author of Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth About Cuba Today. This article was translated by Mary Jo Porter from the Spanish.