A pregnant Cuban woman and her husband are hiding from local police in an old building, in the Surinamese city of Paramaribo. They are sleeping on the floor, on top of some bedspreads, and they are eating straight from sardine tins. They are almost out of money, and they don’t feel like – or plan to – go back to Cuba. But they don’t want to stay in Suriname either.
Over a week ago now, they both formed part of a caravan of Cubans who tried to cross over the border into Guyana. They camped in tents for 15 days outside the Canawaima ferry docks in South Drain, 250 km away from Paramaribo.
Asking to remain anonymous, she is afraid of being arrested. Their names are on the list of Cubans who made the news in the Nickerie district. They are illegal immigrants right now.
She left Cuba almost a year ago and wasn’t able to go back because of COVID-19. She didn’t want to either. Humanitarian flights were very expensive and she thought she “could make progress” in Suriname. Then, she fell pregnant.
The couple decided to join the Por la libertad (Freedom) caravan, when Joe Biden won the US presidential elections and many Cubans thought about chasing the “American dream”.
The plan was to cross Guyana, Brazil, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico.
A Cuban migrant caravan is born in Suriname
On November 30th, several hundred Cubans left Paramaribo city to go to South Drain, on the western border between Suriname and Guyana. There, they waited for the Canawaima ferry to take them across the Courantyne river to the first country in their journey to the US: Guyana. However, the boat was broken –according to authorities– and borders between both countries remained closed.
The Nickerie ferry station filled up with tents and Cubans. According to SuNoticia – a newspaper that has been covering all of the caravan’s activity -, the initial group was made up over 500 people, including 17 children aged between 2 months and 12 years old. The group also included pregnant women, old people and some health professionals. They weren’t all Cubans: there were two Dominicans and a Surinamese person in the group too. The latter climbed up a telecommunications tower, over 50 meters high, in protest and hoping that it would lead to a solution.
“He said that he wouldn’t come down from there until the authorities let us pass,” his wife Zurama Figueroa said. She is a 19-year-old Cuban woman who traveled to Suriname with her mother and step-father. “Other Cubans also climbed up to keep him company and they were stung by wasps or had to come down almost passing out.”
However, Elio Rosales – the caravan’s coordinator – said that they didn’t agree with them climbing up the tower.
Yunier Sanchez also tried to put pressure on local authorities by climbing up the tower, but he came down in a bad way. According to him, they were first denied any help from the Government. “The only thing we wanted was for them to let us pass into Guyana.” They held a hunger protest, protesting peacefully, “but it wasn’t enough.”
Living in unsanitary conditions, with very little food, no bathroom facilities and sleeping outside a lot of the time, the Surinamese government expressed their concern for the Cubans’ situation. They could represent a COVID-19 risk because they aren’t abiding by hygiene regulations to prevent the spread of the virus.
“It’s an unfortunate situation. Every protocol has been violated. They aren’t living in proper conditions, people are cooking right there and bathing in rivers,” said the Nickerie District police commissioner Senrita Gobardhan, after a visit to the camp.
Gobardhan made it clear that the Government was following the situation and that the authorities weren’t happy with what was going on.
Days later and given the tense situation, Suriname canceled all flights from Cuba and Haiti in order to stop more people from joining the caravan.
Cuba’s diplomatic response
A statement issued by the Cuban Embassy in Suriname, on December 21st, announced that “they were supporting the quest for a solution so that Cubans visiting Suriname could return to the country.” The statement refers to the many Cubans who ended up stranded at the airport after a charter flight was canceled. However, Cuban diplomatic personnel have emphasized their willingness to help their fellow compatriots return home.
“We repeat, Cuba is willing to receive all Cuban migrants who left the country by legal means and are now in Suriname illegally. Those wishing to return home must abide by what is stipulated in Cuban law. In these cases, consular services will be provided and safeguards for a voluntary and safe return,” a statement published on December 4th read, in response to the caravan’s activity.
Days later, the Cuban Embassy in Guyana also announced that they would provide “consular assistance and safeguards for a voluntary and safe return” for Cuban migrants in Guyana. The statement was especially targeted towards citizens using Guyanese soil as a stepping stone on their illegal journey to the US or other countries.
Cuban diplomatic statements underlined that US policies and violations of migration agreements were the main reasons for Cubans taking these risks and falling victim to human trafficking rings.
“Almost 250 Cubans were waiting in Guyana to join the caravan. However, the news didn’t seem to favor the Cubans waiting in Suriname,” said Dayana, a 24-year-old Cuban woman, living in Georgetown since 2019.
Meanwhile, in Suriname, “There was talk about possible deportations, of a police operation, of many people tired of a bad situation and deciding to go back to Paramaribo.”
Over the next few days, the group of over 400 Cubans camping on the South Drain pier grew gradually smaller. The different migration status – there were illegal persons, people with residency papers, as well as people applying for political asylum or taken in by the Red Cross -; lack of food and inadequate living conditions; desperation at borders remaining closed and police actions, made many people leave the pier and go back to where they were previously staying.
The Caravan’s eviction
Right now, there are 16 Cubans in Suriname – the caravan’s leaders – being held at an immigration prison. They may be charged for the crime of “sedition”. This information came recently from Police Chief Roberto Prade.
“They are suspected of committing or inciting criminal activity,” Prade informed. They are also accused of illegally occupying a building in the Canawaima ferry station.
In videos posted on social media, some Cubans can be heard shouting: “Let us pass, let us pass”, after learning that Guyana would not authorize their entry into the country and that ferry services would remain suspended. Sitting on the ground and with their hands raised in the air, the police surrounded them, pointed rifles at their heads and you can see that they are arguing. Hours before, they had handed over sharp objects: machetes, knives, scissors, etc.
The Surinamese Minister of Defense, Krishna Mathoera, announced that they decided to arrest those responsible for these criminal acts and hold them at an immigration detention center. She added that they had threatened police officers and other security guards present.
According to the Nickerie police, the threats from some Cubans led to police intervention and the camp being broken up.
The Police quoted caravan leader Elio Rosales as saying: “We will give you exactly two hours to open up the doors of the Canawaima Ferry station, so that we can go in. If this doesn’t happen, we will have no other choice but to enter by force and to occupy the ferry.”
Previously, what was left of the group -some 200 had already left-, rejected the National Disaster Coordinating Council’s aid, which provided them with supplies and other items, along with local authorities.
“We were forced to sign a document that made us declare that we were abandoning the caravan of our own free will,” Rigoberto Hernandez, a refugee taken in by the Red Cross, said. “We were beaten, they piled us into patrol cars like dogs and taken to a military camp.”
The minister of Foreign Affairs, Albert Ramdin, said reports of abuse by authorities were not true, “because this group was treated with great care.”
After breaking up the camp on December 17th, many Cubans were taken to the Army’s Ayoko encampment in the Para district. Days later, they were allowed to return to Paramaribo. Some said that they were stripped of their cellphones, which still haven’t been returned.
“The day they sent in the troops, they checked everybody’s backpacks and took all our money,” Rigoberto Hernandez said. “After this happened, and because they knew that we had recorded videos, they took our cellphones and broke them.”
What’s left of the caravan?
The idea of a Cuban caravan trying to reach the US from Suriname this 2020, was born in late November. Ever since May, some Cubans posted in different Facebook groups about the option of going to Brazil to look for better financial opportunities in this country or beginning a journey to other countries. Quite a few people mentioned poor working conditions in Suriname, whether that’s because they were unable to get papers or because of the COVID-19 crisis.
Dayron Osmany de las Casas – traveling with his wife and three children – sought asylum in Suriname. “But this isn’t the asylum I deserve. I live out on the street, I don’t have any money. They’ve cheated us,” he said.
Like him, precarious living conditions led the majority to depart on a journey that didn’t last very long.
“We left our rental homes, sold the little we had left to begin this caravan,” Andry Montano regrets. “It was never our intention to stay in Suriname or in Guyana, we just wanted these countries to let us pass.”
Scattered throughout the Surinamese city of Paramaribo and other regions today, without any money, homes to rent or work, hundreds of Cubans who joined the caravan are waiting to return to Cuba, leave for another country or try again to settle down in Suriname.
“Our situation is critical, we can’t go on anymore,” Rigoberto Hernandez says. “We have been cheated, scammed, judged, abused, etc. We can’t go on like this anymore. We want to leave this hell.”
Minister Albert Ramdin warned that Cubans currently residing in Suriname illegally, and who don’t abide by government laws or measures, will be kicked out of the country.
In the case of refugees or political asylum seekers, “they have been informed that as soon as they leave Suriname, they will lose their status, which grants them international legal protections,” noted Ramdin.
“Some of us are afraid to go outside because we fear the police will punish us. They have a list with our names on it,” Rigoberto Hernandez says. “I long to see my wife and my two children in Cuba, but I don’t have any money left to pay for a trip back. While I’m still reluctant, sometimes I even wish they’d deport me,” this nurse concludes, completely resigned.
*With the contribution of Alfredo Ballesteros from Hola Guyana.