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Why Do Cubans Emigrate? / Ivan Garcia

December 22, 2015 1 comment
 Cartoon by Osval, from On Cuba magazine

Cartoon by Osval, from On Cuba magazine

Ivan Garcia, 16 December 2015 — Laying the blame on “Yankee imperialism” or the “perverse and criminal” Cuban Adjustment Act will not stem the flow of people escaping poverty and bleak futures.

The national debate should be of a different nature. A responsible and reasonable government would ask itself what went wrong. Seeing Cuban migrants within the broader context of third-world emigration would amount to de facto recognition that the island’s vaunted economic and social model had failed.

Ask a Mexican or a Syrian fleeing the civil war if he approves of the government of Enrique Peña Nieto or Bashar al-Assad.

People emigrate to other countries for a life with dignity, a better salary or the opportunity for professional development. The Cubans who are leaving now are trying to change their circumstances.

I spoke with dozens of Cuban citizens stranded in Costa Rica after the decision by Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, to close the border at Peñas Blancas.

Not one was a political dissident or felt persecuted by the government. But they will tell you quite frankly that they are tired. Tired of everything. Tired of the aged and ineffective Castro government. In spite of guaranteed universal health care and a highly politicized public education, they are tired of their dull gray lives, the social controls, the rationing and the question mark hanging over their futures. And they have lost faith in those running the country.

Most of the more than four thousand migrants in Costa Rica want to be free men and women, to be themselves and not someone else’s tool.

It is a heterogeneous and diverse group. Most are professionals or technical workers who in Cuba had to put away their college degrees and take up burning pirated discs, driving taxis or selling mass-produced junk.

Of course, there are also the low-lifes — prostitutes, drug dealers and deadbeats — as in any human group, but they are in the minority. Their political leanings are not comparable to those of their compatriots, who were outcast by decree and whose property was seized.

But they should not be looked down upon because they are not dissidents or because they silently go along with the Castros’ edicts. Cubans do not have what it takes to be martyrs. Autocratic regimes are very efficient at devising systems of social control. That is a fact.

There is no country in which a communist regime been overthrown through mass uprising. The Berlin Wall came down because East Germans wanted to get out. The only large-scale protest to take place in Havana was in 1994 and at issue was the desire to emigrate.

In societies with tyrannical policies towards opponents such as Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam — societies in which a market economy serves as an escape valve, providing some degree of prosperity — it is unlikely that regime change will come about through popular revolt.

The option for Cubans who cannot afford milk in their morning coffee is to leave the country by any means and at any price. And preferably via Miami. But even in Ecuador or Spain, where there is no Adjustment Act, there are tens of thousands of Cuban residents.

Emigration in Cuba has political overtones. Even before the Cuban Adjustment Act took effect, Fidel Castro was branding any Cubans who wanted to leave the country as “worms.” They were demonized by the system.

They were fired from their jobs and, while waiting for an exit visa, had to work on collective farms. When they left, they were stripped of their property.

Setting sail on a raft from the island’s coastline was a crime punishable by up to eight years in prison. After being tried, an irritable Fidel Castro would insult them, calling them “scum.”

In 1980 the regime introduced the infamous acts of repudiation — fascist-inspired verbal and physical public assaults — against those planning to emigrate. Before going overseas, emigres were forced to leave behind their jewelry and other personal possessions.

As Hitler similarly did to the Jews, they were marked by a scarlet letter. Such practices were later abandoned but there was never a public apology made to those who had been humiliated.

The new strategy represents an accommodation to new political circumstances and the urgent need of an unproductive state economy to bring in dollars to sustain itself.

It is an economy in which the “worms” now provide remittances, replenish telephone accounts, travel to Cuba and send packages. Their contributions constitute the island’s largest industry after the export of medical services.

The Adjustment Act is a pretext, not the real cause of Cuba’s madness. In any case, it is a problem for the United States, which should either revise it or strictly apply its provisions.

Responsibility for the current out-of-control migration rests with the country’s military dictatorship. Before 1959 Cuba was a country of immigrants. Between 1910 and 1925 the island took in one-third of all Spanish immigrants to the Americas. In 1902 it absorbed 11,986 immigrants and it 1920 the figure grew to 174,221.

Some 9,571 Cubans emigrated to the United States between 1931 and 1940; 26,313 emigrated between 1941 and 1950; 208,536 emigrated between 1961 and 1970. According to U.S. census figures there were 1,213,418 Cubans living in Florida, an increase of 45.6% over the year 2000 census figures.

According to U.S. Customs Service statistics for the current fiscal year, more than 45,000 Cubans have entered the country by crossing the Mexican and Canadian borders, and even the Russian border with Alaska.

In spite of the 2013 emigration reforms, Cubans who leave the country must pay extremely high fees to renew their passports. And they lose their properties if they reside for twenty-four months outside the country.

Furthermore, the government does not recognize dual citizenship, so overseas Cubans must request permission to visit their homeland. And they have no political or social rights when they are living outside of Cuba.

The Cuban government maintains its own version of the Adjustment Act, directed at Cubans living overseas, because that is the way Fidel Castro wanted it.

Ivan Garcia

Hispano Post, December 7, 2015

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Cuba: Christmas-by-Caste and Without Discounts

December 21, 2015 1 comment
Employees of private restaurants, i.e. "paladares," dressed as Santa Claus, distribute menus and price listings of holiday meals on offer. Photo credit: El Comercio

Employees of private restaurants, i.e. “paladares,” dressed as Santa Claus, distribute menus and price listings of holiday meals on offer. Photo credit: El Comercio

Ivan Garcia, 21 December 2015 — December is a month of summing up and partying. And of opening the purse. Yusmel, a private entrepreneur, believes that the tropical winter and the holidays lend a different air to Havana.

“It’s not so hot as in the summer, and the atmosphere smells different. After the government authorized the celebration of Nochebuena [Christmas Eve], decorations are put up in many homes, shops, private businesses and hotels. The capital is in a deplorable physical state, but the decorations and the lights in the Christmas trees beautify it somewhat,” says Yusmel while he drinks a Presidente beer in the cafeteria of the Carlos III Shopping Center.

Esther, a housewife, received US$250 via Western Union from a daughter who lives in Miami. “Thanks to that money, I will be able to have milk, fish and beef, and prepare a feast on 24 December. But the dollars buy less all the time.”

According to Esther, ten years ago, US$100 dollars sufficed to buy a large amount of food. “But since Fidel put a tax on the dollar, and because of constant price increases, the money drains like water between the fingers. And these (government) people don’t offer discounts, not even at Christmas or New Year’s,” she says, annoyed. She proceeds to list the scandalous prices of beef, cheeses, sausages and seafood that are sold in the state stores in CUCs [Cuban convertible pesos].

In Cuba there are no Black Fridays nor sales. Merchandise remains on the shelves for years. Nor are there special offers for Christmas, or for the 57th anniversary of Fidel Castro taking power.

Jorge, an economist, thinks that business sense in collective societies such as Cuba’s is atrophied. “State corporations don’t care that products aren’t moving. And they do not put on sales even though the majority of those products are obsolete. One example is that of home electronics and television sets. A plasma TV costs 400 CUCs, despite the fact that 100,000 units are assembled per year in Cuba. That same TV in Miami would cost less than US$200.

Eugenia, a history major, sees it from another perspective. “After the triumph of the Revolution, Christmas, Three Kings Day, Holy Week, and other feast days of the Christian Western world were cancelled in Cuba for being considered bourgeois traditions. And if people were allowed to celebrate New Year’s Eve, it was because this coincided with when Fidel assumed power, on 1 January 1959. Now, despite the changes that have been introduced, there is no Christmas culture in State institutions. The official press barely mentions Christmas. And the pricing policy remains intolerable.”

Until Pope John Paul II’s visit in January, 1998, Christmas celebrations on the Island did not have the blessing of the regime. There was a period during which standards copied from the Soviet Union were applied with more rigor. Back then, families such as Luis Alberto’s, would put up their Christmas tree in a back room, so that the little lights wouldn’t give them away to the intransigent president of their local CDR.

“My parents were part of the system. Therefore, they were careful to hide the tree. But the aroma of roast pork on 24 December would give us away. When the CDR members would inquire, we would tell them that we were celebrating early the triumph of the Revolution,” says Luis Alberto, grinning.

Now things have changed. Since 1997, 25 December is a feast day in Cuba. As happens in countries with Catholic traditions, Christmas celebrations can take place with more or less luster, depending on the socioeconomic situation of each family.

On the Island, castes are political. The olive-green mandarins live in another dimension and are untouchable. During the difficult years of the Revolution–which have been almost all of them–the bigwigs would roast pigs on spits and bake stuffed turkeys on 24 December.

While they ate and drank in big style, the majority of the population was cutting sugarcane and saw themselves as forced to hide their old Christmas decorations, and–with the blinds closed–dined on rice and black beans, boiled yuca (the people did not always have garlic, onion and lemon for the mojo sauce) and, maybe, a small piece of pork.

Those were the days when Fidel Castro would gift his inner circle with roast pigs, boxes of beer, bottles of wine and baskets filled with apples, grapes, and bars of turrones** from Spain. Today those who retain power continue to celebrate the holidays in full finery.

Lately to the government elite has been added another: the embryo of an upper middle class. These personages buy frozen turkeys at $45 or $50 apiece, wines, and high-quality turrones.*

Most are prosperous private entrepreneurs, artists and famous sports figures, citizens who receive remittances greater than $200/month, or members of a caste of white-collar thieves who steal from the state purse.

Next are those who can prepare a more or less decent Christmas feast, because their small businesses (legal or not) provide them the means to do so. They are employees or managers of mixed enterprises and tourist attractions, or underground workers in the black market.

And last, the same old poor. That majority segment of the population, inheritors of the socialized misery implanted by Fidel Castro, who humbly celebrate Nochebuena.

Iván García

Originally published in HispanoPost.Com, 20 December 2015.

Translator’s Notes:

* Plural of turrón, a Christmas sweet made of almonds and honey, similar to marzipan or nougat.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

 

The Cuban Odyssey on the Overland Route to the US / Ivan Garcia

December 19, 2015 Leave a comment
Cubanas-en-Costa-Rica-_ab-620x330

Photograph: BBC Mundo.

Ivan García, Costa Rica, 11 December 2015 — One summer night in a private bar in Havana the deal was done. Miladis, 25, together with her boyfriend, would be responsible for travelling to Quito and Guayaquil to buy hundreds of kilograms of cheap clothes, knocked-off cell phones and domestic appliances to be resold later in Cuba.

Already in Ecuador the trouble started. “My boyfriend lost a lot of money in Ecuador gambling at cards and cockfighting. To settle the debt I was the payment. A coyote living in the neighbourhood of San Bartolo in Quito kept me from leaving until I paid $1,500. The option was to prostitute myself for $40 for two hours. After paying him I left with a group of eleven Cubans for the United States.

A soldier of the guerrillas in Colombia, when I was unable to pay the $400 charged per person, raped me. Please God that when the passage between Costa Rica and Nicaragua is opened I will not have to live another nightmare”, said Miladis indifferently, sitting on an outdoor concrete bench in a shelter for immigrants in the Costa Rican village of La Cruz, a few kilometers from the border with Nicaragua.

When you chat with any of the women who decided to abandon the Cuban economic madhouse, you will hear shocking life stories.

Magda, a plump woman in her forties, sitting in the dining room of the hostel El Descanso, in the Costa Rican town of Paso Canoas, says: “We left Ecuador on a night that threatened rain. In the Colombian jungle the Coyotes halted to rest. A little later some dangerous looking guys arrived with firearms. In addition to demanding a cash payment, they took a young 19-year-old woman that was traveling with the group. Another they raped several times. ”

Among the more than four thousand Cubans stranded in Costa Rica following the decision of the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega to close the border at Peñas Blancas, there are women with infants and mothers who made the journey with young children.

“It’s irresponsible. I am the father of two children and would never allow my wife to have to suffer the hardships of a difficult and risky journey”, muses Alex, a fourth-year law student, sitting on dirty cardboard on the platform of a dilapidated bus terminal in Pasos Canoas, waiting for a bus that for $15 will take them to San Ramon, a one hour drive from the Costa Rican capital.

In the town of La Cruz there are only six shelters for Cuban migrants. The largest of these is nestled in Colegio Nocturno and of the 631 persons accommodated, 185 are women and 16 are children. They sleep on foam rubber mattresses strewn in the classrooms and throughout the gym.

The Costa Rican authorities guarantee them breakfast and two hot meals a day. Until ten p.m. they can move around freely. But those who have enough money prefer to rent a room in one of the hostels in Paso Canoas, Peñas Blancas, Liberia, San Ramón or La Cruz.

The Cubans, shipwrecked on dry land, have a temporary visa for 15 days. According to Norberto Fumero, 34, there are compatriots who prostitute themselves for $20 a night. “If they hook a Costa Rican client they ask them 40 or 50 dollars. Some were prostitutes in Cuba and moved their way of life here. They can’t do anything but streetwalk. ”

Jorge, a Costa Rican taxi driver, says that several Cuban women have propositioned him with sex. “It’s pitiful. They are young and beautiful. I have been asked $30 or $40 because they have no money to continue the journey. The older ones ask for money, cigarettes or the price of a few beers”.

Many travel with their husbands. Others make the journey alone and travel with groups of people whom they know from Cuba. Yanira, a stylish brunette, worked in a food processing centre in Puerto Padre, Las Tunas province, 700 kilometers from Havana.

Yanira decided to leave the island to reunite with her boyfriend who lives in Orlando, Florida. “I traveled with little money, less than two thousand dollars. When I arrived in Panama I was already broke. How do you obtain the money?”, she asks while drinking a beer in a hostel in Paso Canoas. It takes little imagination to know how.

Translated by Araby

Electoral Defeat in Venezuela Could Accelerate Reforms in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

December 16, 2015 Leave a comment

Cuban soldiers at a mass celebrated in January 2013 at Havana’s Jesus of Miramar church to pray for the health of Hugo Chavez. From “Praying for Chavez” by Ivan Garcia.

Iván García, Diario de las Américas, 8 December 2015 — Just past midnight, when Cuba’s military bigwigs heard the president of the Venezuelan electoral college, Tibisay Lucena, confirm the loss of Nicolas Maduro’s PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) in the December 6 parliamentary elections, alarm bells went off in the offices of Cuba’s Palace of the Revolution.

The epicenter of the Venezuelan political earthquake shook official Cuba, the one made up of timid statesmen, irresponsible officials and radical ideologues who try to govern a nation by adding one plus zero.

The virtual country designed by Raul Castro’s advisors — those who have hidden Cuba’s structural, political, economic and social problems — is a double-edged sword.

Maintaining an iron fisted-control over the island’s media has allowed them to present to the world the image of a society made up of a pleasant, committed people by means of a publicity stunt called the Cuban Revolution.

It did exist, but after 1976 it became a nation with an institutionalized Soviet court that used Marxism as its political guidebook.

Thanks to an efficient intelligence apparatus, the Castro brothers have governed the country without having to deal with popular protests by suppressing a tiny domestic dissident movement whose tactical errors have shown it does not known how or has not been able to connect with the average Cuban.

Cuba managed to export its inane economic ideology to Venezuela. When Colonel Hugo Rafael Chavez was nothing more than the leader of a coup, Fidel Castro saw in him a future statesman.

After Chavez was released from prison, Castro welcomed him to Havana with the pomp and circumstance befitting a president. Chavez’ mentor monitored his every move. Given Castro’s skill, he was able to install in Caracas’ presidential palace something better than an ideological and strategic ally. He installed a ventriloquist.

The Castro brothers can claim one unquestionable accomplishment: they now exert remote control over a nation with three times the population, GDP and natural resources of their own.

When corruption, popular discontent and uncontrolled poverty allowed Hugo Chavez to enter Venezuelan politics through the back door, he carried a portfolio whose outlines had been drawn by his mentor, Fidel.

The biggest mistake of Chavez, Maduro and the Castros has been to govern only for the benefit of their supporters. There have been other major blunders, such as the ideologization of education, the nationalization of private businesses and the dismantling of the machinery of a functioning economy.

Caracas’ response has been to blame the eternal enemies: Yankee imperialism, the bourgeoisie and the local business community. In spite of his corruption scandals, Brazil’s President Lula and Uruguay’s President Mujica showed themselves to be  different kinds of leftists.

Like good travel companions, the Brazilian and Uruguayan presidents supported or quieted the excesses and absurdities of their ideological partners on the international stage. But they did not fracture their societies like Chavez or the Castros did.

Chavez’s megalomania became a hindrance. The death of the paratrooper from Sabaneta de Barinas, like that of any leader, left an insurmountable power vacuum.

If Maduro had been prudent, he would have formed alliances with the opposition in order to get through the downturn. By the time he came to power, conditions had changed. The export boom in raw materials was over and oil prices had plunged, but he failed to properly assess the situation.

Nicolas Maduro’s frequent foolish statements, profanity and insults will not put an end to inflation, currency depreciation, organized crime, food shortages or social tensions in Venezuela.

More than the Venezuelan opposition, the PSUV’s main contender is the people, and on December 6 they spoke. What could happen going forward?

If Maduro does not alter his political strategy, disaster awaits him, either through some form of recall before 2019 or through a substantial and continuing loss of power.

If he had any decency, he would resign as president. After countless missteps in running the country, record violence, official corruption and two relatives of his wife accused of drug trafficking, the best way out for Maduro, and for preserving Chavez’ legacy, would be for him to leave office.

But I do not think this will happen. People like him derive their authority by going against the tide. Diplomacy is not their strength. Quite the opposite with Raul Castro. When he became president in 2006, few would have bet a penny on him.

He had a reputation as a drunkard and a shadowy conspirator. He came to power only because he was Fidel’s brother. The relief pitcher came along at a critical moment. He faced a stagnant economy in crisis and a political prisoner, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who had died in jail from a hunger strike.

Raul was besieged in the international arena by the United States and the European Union due to his brother’s disastrous policy decision to jail seventy-five dissidents in the spring of 2003.

But the Cuban autocrat knows how to negotiate a favorable treaty with the White House and the EU without easing up on his repression of dissidents or changing the status quo too much.

Raul Castro is an expert at blowing smoke. A year after December 17 he has not implemented a strategy in response to President Obama’s road map.

Perhaps the electoral drubbing in Venezuela on December 6 combined with the unstoppable exodus of Cubans will encourage him to adopt of serious reforms. Though you never know with the Castros.

 

Cubans in Costa Rica: Hardship and Waste / Ivan Garcia

December 14, 2015 Leave a comment
Photo from Deutsche Welle.

Photo from Deutsche Welle.

Ivan Garcia, Costa Rica, 9 December 2015 — Following the guide dictated by a relative who in the Spring of 2015 pointed out the Central American route of eight countries up to the frontier of Laredo in United States, Norberto Fumero, 34-year-old truck driver in Cuba, since his departure from Ecuador has always traveled in small groups.

But now in Puerto Obaldía, in Panama, or en route through Costa Rica – considered by Fumero as “a truce from all the extortion by the police, the ‘coyotes’ and the murderers” – acted with more liberty of movement.

A rainy morning arrived in Paso Canoas, a quiet and level town in Costa Rica at the edge of the border with Panama. “In the march through Colombia we were 14, 11 men and three childless women. Children are an impediment. They make the trip slow and dangerous. Already in Paso Canoas I left the group and I joined four people with enough money to cover a stay that can be extended longer than expected,” says Fumero at the entrance of a hostel in La Cruz, a town about 12 kilometres from the border with Nicaragua. Read more…

Distrust and Fear Among Cuban "Land Rafters" / Ivan Garcia

December 10, 2015 Leave a comment
Immigration police checking Cubans. Taken from Deutsche Welle

Immigration police checking Cubans. Taken from Deutsche Welle

Ivan Garcia, Costa Rica, 7 December 2015 — For Jorge Echevarria, 25, it all started one morning in La Vibora, a neighborhood in south Havana, when a woman friend, through a telephone connection via the internet, put him in contact with an Ecuadorian coyote.

“For six years I had been trying to leave Cuba. Three times I jumped on a raft. I was always caught by the US Coast Guard. It was then that I decided to travel to Ecuador and try the route through several Central American countries,” said Echevarria, while waiting for the bus to take him to a shelter in San Ramon, an hour from the Costa Rican capital.

According to Jorge, in Colombia he was stripped of the money he was carrying. “Around $4,000. I hid it in different places on my body and in the lining of a backpack. They left me without a cent. When I got to Paso Canoas, I hadn’t eaten for three days. Just some water and fruit I found along the road.”

The majority of Cubans stranded in Costa Rica agree that their greatest enemies are the coyotes, the ELN and FARC gunmen and guerrillas in Colombia. “These people don’t fuck around. If you don’t let go of the money they shoot you. They are armed illiterates. Assassins for pleasure,” says Echevarria, sitting on the platform of an old bus station in Paso Canoas, Costa Rica.

Several of those interviewed by Marti Noticias said that to start the journey you need at least between $5,000 and $8,000 dollars. Also a bit of luck and always travel in groups.

When you chat with them, you can see the danger they have faced along the way in their tired eyes and the stories they tell. Magda, a lady with dyed blonde hair had had a beauty parlor in Puerto Padre, Las Tunas, about 400 miles northeast of Havana.

Things were going well for me. I earned 90 to 100 convertible pesos a month (100-110 dollars), which is enough in Cuba. But there is no future my son. I am the mother of a 21-year-old son who every night reminded me he wanted to get out of this shit,” she says, seated on a wooden stool in Paso Canoas.

Magda says that in her group a young Cuban woman was kidnapped by Colombian assassins. “We paid money to pass and they told us, ‘the girl is staying with us.’ They raped her. The trip is very hard. But I don’t regret it.”

Alfredo Avila, 28, an electrical engineer in Holguin, left his wife and son in Cuba. And also a half-built house. His dream is to settle in the United States, work hard and be able to get his family out.

He was able to raise the money, “in more or less illegal businesses and with the sale of a house. A relative who lives in Miami, on one of his trip to Cuba, I gave him 10,000 dollars, which he is doling out to me. The plan was simple. Friends in Holguin gave me contacts in Ecuador. To prepare for my flight, I went to Quito twice. When I decided, I made contact with Ecuadorian coyotes. The journey is difficult and dangerous. The ideal thing is to travel with little money. And hide it as well as possible,” Avila said, in the entry hall of the shabby hostel in El Azteca.

Eddy Alfonso Rubio, 29, a food technician, lived in the coastal village of Santa Cruz del Norte, in Mayabeque province. Although the journey was complicated, now in Costa Rica, he is more relaxed and drinks one beer after another without stopping.

“I was a bartender in a State restaurant. I saved money from the tips and other businesses. I left my wife and one daughter in Cuba. Raul Castro’s economic reforms haven’t benefited the majority of the people. There (the island) there is no solution. The best thing to do is leave. As soon as possible,” he says.

When you ask them about political issues, the Cuban “land rafters” put on long faces. At a viewpoint in La Cruz village three women sitting on the floor don’t want to talk about it.

“You’re nuts. It they pit us against each other, those people give us the bill,” she said. A blue-eyed mixed-race woman and another friend talked in whispers. “It they would give us a visa for speaking out against the government, they would have to beat us off with sticks to get us to shut up,” they commented in a La Cruz park.

Most Cubans when traveling by land are very cautious when it comes time to talk politics. Away from the cameras they admit that the Castro regime is the one at fault for Cuba’s economic madhouse.

But in front of a microphone everything is justifications. Like two friends at the entrance to the shelter in the La Cruz settlement. “I left family in Cuba,” one justifies. And the other claims, “If I say things the government doesn’t like they may not let me enter the country.”

Joan Carbonell, 24, is a graduate in computer science.  He worked on the website of the official newspaper Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) and is doubly suspicious. Before giving his opinion he asked a woman friend from the newspaper, using a data connection on his mobile phone, to check out the journalist’s profile.

Then, by way of an excuse, he said, “Sir, I have nothing against you, but you work for Radio and TV Marti. And speaking to the camera could bring future consequences for me in Cuba.”

Beyond the effort, and the cost in money, on their march by land to the United States, thus new wave of Cuban emigrants carries fear in their backpacks. A Fidel Castro in plainclothes that many cannot overcome.

The Stay of Some Cubans in Costa Rica / Ivan Garcia

December 6, 2015 Leave a comment
Cubans in Costa Rica

Cubans in Costa Rica (Photo: La Nación)

Ivan Garcia, Costa Rica, 2 December 2015 — Just after 5:30 in the afternoon, night falls on the Costa Rican village of La Cruz, some 12 miles from the Nicaraguan border.

It is a neighborhood of gentle slopes, clean streets and an agreeable climate. Architecturally there’s not much that stands out. One or two-story houses and a central park right in the heart of the settlement.

Just to see the spectacular view from the restaurant-viewpoint of La Cruz is worth the 160 mile trip from San Jose, the capital, to a town where the news is the coming of more than 2,000 Cubans since the beginning of November; Cubans who are camping out in half a dozen shelters, hostels and private homes that rent their rooms to the recently arrived.

“There is no doubt that it has revitalized the local economy. Now we sell more bread, beer, food and cellphone lines. In addition, it has enormously increased the Western Union bank transfers,” says Sergio Morales, who works at La Cruz town hall.

Starting at ten in the morning the Cubans wander through the park and the shops. Or they line up at the tiny Western Union office to receive remittances from their relatives in the United States.

The policy of the American financial company is paradoxical. In some cities in Costa Rica they don’t allow the Cubans to take out money. A measure, Western Union in San Jose says by phone, that preceded the current immigration crisis of 4,000 Cubans stranded in Costa Rica after the decision by Daniel Ortega’s government to close the border at Penas Blancas.

In places like Paso Canoas, the Cuban “land rafters” cross into Panama to collect the money transfers. In Liberia, the Western Union offices pay in colones, the Costa Rican currency. Meanwhile, in other branches they can only take out 100 dollars.

“It’s a racist measure. If I get to the United States I’m going to sue them. What differentiates a Cuban from another citizen of the world,” says Yusdel Cueto, notably angry.

The inability to collect the transfers has created a network made up of Cubans and Costa Ricans. Every morning, a venerable looking man who says he’s a lawyer puts his laptop on the table at the El Descanso hostel to offer his services to Cubans in the Paso Canoas village, a stone’s throw from the border with Panama.

They call him ’the acceptance agent.’ “For a 10% commission the man takes care of paying the transfers,” says Ruben, a Cuban who has spent two weeks stranded in Costa Rica.

Consistent with the testimonies of the island’s migrants, some villages and towns with tiny economies have seen their businesses revive thanks to money from Cubans trying to get to the United States.

“Puerto Obaldia, in Panama, is a miserable hamlet of fishermen where the people are making money from the Cubans. The hotels in Paso Canoas, La Cruz and Penas Blancas are 90% occupied by Cubans. Including charging us higher prices, taking advantage of the moment and our needs,” says Ridel, a civil engineer who arrived in Costa Rica on 21 November.

While most Cubans count their pennies and anxiously await remittances from the United States, others have sufficient capital to rent rooms, pay for food, and live a dissipated life.

A hostel near the border can cost between 10 and 50 dollars a night. A breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and black beans), scrambled eggs and slices of bread, about two dollars. And the cheapest lunch is more than three dollars.

However, in El Mirador restaurant, in La Cruz, a dozen Cubans are drinking Costa Rican Imperial beer and paying for a dinner that costs about 45 dollars.

“Aren’t they worried about spending so much money in the midst of the current immigration crisis?” asks Gregorio Justiz, a Cuban who is drinking a double whiskey in a hostel, while watching the European Champion League play soccer.

“Not all the Cubans here are paying for the trip with money from their relatives in Florida. Some 60% to 70% have gotten the money by their own efforts. There are those who sold their houses for 30,000 or 40,000 dollars. I, for example, had 5 cars and 2 jeeps that I rented as taxis in Cuba. WIth the money from selling them I am paying for the trip, Although as a precaution I gave the money to a cousin in New York and he is sending it to me as I ask for it,” he said.

After noon, while Costa Rican volunteers serve lunch in the crowded shelters, a group of Cubans  make a la carte food or rent cars to visit nearby beaches.

When night falls, a bar glows dimly on one side of La Cruz village park, and Cubans with ample wallets come to drink beer or rum with ice and flirt with the girls. Cuban or Costa Rican. It’s all the same.