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Enemy of a totalitarian state: Why I left Cuba

In this May 2, 2016 file photo, Yaney Cajigal, left, holds out a Stars and Stripes, and Dalwin Valdes holds a Cuban national flag, as they watch the arrival of Carnival’s Adonia cruise ship from Miami, in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Fernando Medina, File)

Imagine that you have nothing, not even freedom, but that you must smile. Imagine that your government asks you for enthusiasm in the face of misery while prohibiting prosperity. Imagine that the state prevents you from educating your children according to your principles — that, instead, your children and hundreds of thousands of others, must repeat “We will be like Che!” before going to class each morning.

That’s a glimpse of life in Cuba over the last 64 years. The tyrant lives in mansions, on yachts and with servants, while it preaches the benefits of misery.

Whoever asks for freedom receives beatings and jail, like the more than 1,000 political prisoners on the island today. Whoever takes their children out of the system is separated from them, like the pastoral couple Ramón Rigal and Adya Expósito.

In 2020, a police officer told me that I would go to jail for practicing journalism. When I covered threats against unregistered Christian groups or crime in Havana, the regime was annoyed. When I published investigations of torture, cyber surveillance and political prisoners, the anger became palpable.

I wrote a book that weaved together the history of Cuba’s political police and my experiences as an enemy of the last totalitarian state in the West. I am that — an enemy of the state, but never a victim.

After a kidnapping, home confinement, detainment, warnings, fines, confiscation of assets, I continued writing. When they prohibited me from leaving the country, I investigated the blacklist. When they arrested me, I wrote about detained Cubans. When I was summoned to police stations amid the pandemic, I posted about it. Returning from a shower of threats to my wife’s hug, my son’s smile or my mother’s prayer was revitalizing. The first homeland is the family.

I did not stop doing journalism, and in Cuba if you are outspoken against socialism, the almost certain end is jail.

In 2022, it was time to go into exile.

That year I obtained a visiting fellowship to be a professor at a Central European university. When one early morning I received the acceptance email, my wife and I hugged each other, our child got out of bed to melt into the joy of adults. He didn’t understand, but it was an opportunity to get out of that tropical hell, fulfilling two conditions that were sacred to us: that the family would not be divided and that there would be no pact with the tyrant.

Regarding the second, I know painful cases of journalists promising not to speak “badly” about the revolution or to give up journalism as conditions for leaving Cuba. But for eight years I had written in the belly of the socialist monster and had supported sanctions against the regime in the face of questioning diplomats. I was not going to break now.

We thought of reputable civil society institutions that would mediate before the ministry of the interior. An evangelical pastor told me he would call or write if necessary. Another religious leader, Catholic Cardinal Juan García Rodriguez, was also willing to help.

In 2022, a policeman stationed himself in front of my house and gave me a summons to the nearest station. I sensed that the cardinal’s mediation was bearing fruit. That day, the political police officer who interrogated me did not threaten, as he had always done in the past, to prosecute me for being a mercenary or for spreading “enemy propaganda.” The discourse had changed: Suddenly, the regime didn’t want to harm me or my family but rather would “open the gate” for us, under the condition that we could not return.

“I will not return to Cuba as long as there is socialism,” I responded. The soldier looked up from an agenda, smiled wryly and began writing on the paper again. They were desperate to take pressure off the boiler. When tensions rise, the regime exiles troublesome citizens.

In 2022 alone, more than 225,000 Cubans arrived in the United States by land and sea. That’s over 2 percent of Cuba’s 11.1 million citizens. The percentage is even higher if those who go to other destinations, such as Spain, are counted.

The immediate causes are the government’s repression of the demonstrations of July 11 and 12, 2021, and the economic crisis that’s gripped the nation since 2019.

Cubans, who in more than six decades have not been able to vote with their heads and hands, have taken to voting with their feet. They flee the Marxist disaster in homemade boats through the Caribbean, despite the encircling sharks, or through the Central American jungles infested with organized criminals. In that stampede have come Cubans of every kind who are united in their opposition to totalitarianism.

The war in Ukraine prevented an early departure to central Europe for me and my family. But the political police pressured me to leave through phone calls. I kept working and being on edge.

But last summer, a human rights organization invited me to present the feature film “Cuba Crucis” in Miami and Washington D.C., which a team of friends and I had secretly filmed for more than a year.

Weeks later, I saw the Red Sea part: My family and I were given permission to enter the United States.

It took us another month to comply with the federal vaccination mandate against COVID-19. The calls from unknown numbers continued, always with the same military voice pushing me to leave as quickly as possible.

In my last days in Havana, I received friends at home. I rode my motorcycle aimlessly through western avenues, opening my eyes many times — I wanted the whole city to enter my memory.

On the morning of Aug. 23, 2022, I hugged my mother for the last time.

There are phrases that stay with you forever. “A child of God does not serve man”; “I prefer you far away rather than a prisoner here.” She is who I miss the most.

At the Havana airport, from the customs check to the boarding process, a political police officer remained close by. I recognized his voice; it was the man who had called me so many times. While in line, if we took a step, he would take one with us. If we stopped, he would stop too. He didn’t mind us noticing his presence.

I lived on the island like this, with the state monitoring my every move. So, it was fitting that I was watched until my last steps in Cuba. The soldier stopped. My family and I were entering the bridge between the terminal and the American Airlines aircraft.

I don’t remember much more of that final moment. Only my wife squeezing my hand, and my son, between us, asking for a kiss.

Yoe Suarez is a Cuban investigative journalist, producer and writer. He is author of “Leviatán: Policía política cubana y terror socialista” and “El Soplo del Demonio: Violencia y Pandillerismo en La Habana.” Follow him on Twitter @yoe90suarez.

Tags Cuba Cuban Americans Cuban migration Cuban protests Havana immigration

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