ILUSTRACIÓN: Federico Mercante / Periodismo Situado
A Cuban Woman Describes How She Got Stranded in Guyana
Yiset Lorenzo left Havana and headed to Georgetown on Tuesday March 10th. It was the first time that she had flown abroad. On that day, Cuba still hadn’t confirmed any positive cases of COVID-19, Guyana hadn’t either. The new Coronavirus seemed to only be a problem in Europe and China. It’s been two months since that day, and Yiset still doesn’t know when she will able to go back home.
She had taken the trip to accompany a friend’s mother. The woman had to go to an interview at the US Embassy in Guyana [the US Embassy in Havana is closed to Cubans].
“She is an elderly woman and shouldn’t travel alone. Her children in the US covered both of our traveling expenses,” Yiset explains.
A week later, the Guyanese government announced that it was shutting down its border to prevent Coronavirus from spreading. Airlines canceled their flights. Yiset and another 700 Cubans who had traveled for different commercial ventures and immigration papers for the US, ended up stranded.
After several coordination efforts with the Cuban Embassy, the Guyanese government and airlines, Aruba Airlines and Caribbean Airlines received authorization to pick up passengers at Georgetown airport and bring them back to Havana.
“I found out too late about being able to change my flight which was set to leave on March 24th,” she told us. “We got to the airport and the Caribbean airlines plane had already taken off. There was one more flight with Aruba airlines, but you had to buy the ticket and it cost almost 400 USD.”
Yiset wasn’t traveling with her own money. The woman she was accompanying was handling the budget. Neither this old woman, or her children, agreed to Yiset’s idea of paying for a new ticket for both of them and coming back before the scheduled time. They had to wait.
They went to the airport three times between Saturday March 21st and Tuesday March 24th.
“We flagged down a taxi, got in with all of our suitcases, and then we were soon back on our way to the hostel,” Yisel says.
The airport had been closed. Outside, groups of Cubans were waiting for a plane to come.
“On the 24th, I thought that would be our last trip to the airport.”
Yiset and her friend’s mother were waiting for five hours when the sales manager at Caribbean airlines sent them a message in a Whatsapp group, telling them the flight had been canceled. After this news, Yiset didn’t dare leave. She thought about her children, how much she wanted to hold them tight, look after them during this pandemic and she sat waiting for a miracle to happen.
She regretted not having enough money to pay for a return ticket back and having lost her last opportunity to go back home to Cuba, on the weekend. The popular saying “Opportunity only knocks once” kept beating around my mind.
“We found out that planes weren’t being allowed to take off in Trinidad and Tobago. We were promised that they would continue to work on getting authorization, but we haven’t heard anything else.”
On Monday March 23rd, Cuba announced that a patient coming from Guyana had tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival, two days before.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Yiset told herself.
That idea consoled her a little: she could have traveled back on the same plane.
She talks to her family in Cuba on WhatsApp, she guides them and cheers them up in text or voice messages. Her family pays expensive Internet prices in Cuba so they don’t lose touch with her. Her husband is taking care of everything back home, buying food and essentials, looking after their children.
“I have told him not to even let them go to the front door: the older one gets sick very easily and the youngest still doesn’t understand how dangerous this disease is,” she says.
Meanwhile, food and accommodation expenses for her and the woman she is accompanying, have already exceeded the price of the two plane tickets they couldn’t pay.
The uncertainty of not knowing when they can return, is slowing turning into resignation. When she thinks about the pandemic, worrying about getting infected isn’t her main cause of concern. Her thoughts are in Cuba.
“I spend all of my time at the rental place, no Cubans go outside. We have all done what we came here to do,” she says.
Others, with less means, have found support at the Cuban Embassy in Georgetown, which organizes food donations and finds cheaper hostals for them to stay at. Diplomats here know about them all, although there is very little or anything, they can do to get them home.
According to a statement issued by the Guyanese government, flight restrictions will extend for May, but stranded Cubans continue to hope for a humanitarian flight to take them back.
Yiset has become skeptical. She does the math: over a month and a half without seeing her children. Something tells her it will be a long time before she can go back. She has never been away from her family for so long. “My greatest fear is that my children get sick, or I get sick, and I never see them again,” she says.
This article was written as part of the Local Journalism Laboratory project, and is being published with the explicit consent of its organizers.