Think trip for US-bound Cubans is hard? Do it pregnant

Alina Dieste
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Pregnant Cuban migrant Yadira Torres in a shelter in Colombia

Pregnant Cuban migrant Yadira Torres in a shelter in Colombia (AFP Photo/Raul Arboleta)

Turbo (Colombia) (AFP) - It is a dangerous, grueling odyssey to reach this Colombian port city that migrants from around the world use as a way station to try to make it to the United States.

So imagine doing it while pregnant, as Yadira Torres of Cuba is.

After three miscarriages, she thought she would never have kids. Then, during the rough journey from impoverished Cuba, the miracle happened.

And here she is, six months pregnant, along with hundreds of other Cubans biding their time in this Caribbean port city as they dream of a better life in the United States.

"Like all the Cubans who are here, I want to make it to the United States. I would like my baby to be born there," Torres told AFP.

In Turbo, more than 500 Cubans have been waiting since mid-May for their migratory status to be cleared up. The trip north has been made harder by tougher border controls in Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Torres, a 24-year-old nurse, left Cuba on November 2 with her husband, 37-year-old Odeiki Hernandez. They flew to Guyana, and then to Brazil -- "That is where I conceived", Torres says -- and then to Peru, Ecuador and finally Colombia.

"We use planes, boats, taxis, buses and even walk," said Torres. Like the other Cubans, she wants to take advantage of a preferential migratory status that the United States provides to Cubans.

They fear this special treatment -- which dates back to the Cold War -- will end now that the United States and Cuba have buried the hatchet and restored diplomatic relations.

The trip was long and hard. "At times we had no place to sleep, and I had nausea. In Colombia, the police would tell us to slip money into our passports or they would deport us. On the way from Cali to Medellin they took all my husband's clothes. They did not do it to me because he stood up and defended me."

"You end up giving away watches, necklaces, money to keep going. Sometimes we had no food to eat," said Torres, who is determined to keep fighting for her baby.

She is hopeful about the future, like many Cubans living in an abandoned warehouse in Turbo.

For many the next step is to try to reach Panama, and from there keeping moving through Central America.

But on May 9 Panama cracked down on entry by foreigners without immigration papers. So the number of Cubans in Turbo is rising.

- An expensive trip -

Another Cuban, Mercedes Salazar, cannot help but laugh over the fact that the first place she landed after leaving Havana for Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, was in fact Panama City. But she could not stay, and has yet to make it back there.

"The flight from Georgetown stops off in Panama City. But we could not leave the airport," said Salaza.

She says that during the long journey Cubans are robbed and cheated. They end up abandoning their luggage. They go hungry.

"We arrived here with nothing. No money, no cell phone, almost with just the clothes on our back," she said.

Cubans in Turbo said they spend between $7,000 and $12,000 to reach the United States.

Xiomara Hernandez said she sold her apartment to pay for the trip. Many Cubans confessed to having taken such drastic steps.

"And today I do not even have clothes to wear," said Hernandez, who is 50.

- Disappointment and generosity -

Other migrants who left Cuba did not originally plan to head to the United States. But economic troubles in other Latin American countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil and Uruguay prompted them to change their minds.

Some worked as doctors or professors as part of official Cuban delegations in Venezuela or Ecuador. But they ended up so discouraged and poor that they decided to defect.

And they ended up in Turbo, which since late 2015 has seen an increased migrant flow not just from Cuba but also Haiti, Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, Nepal, Cameroun, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Somalia.

In the warehouse that some anonymous kind soul lent to the Cubans, the air is stuffy and smells of tobacco.

A few days ago, someone high on drugs threatened them with a knife. So at night they close the doors, and two or three take turns on guard duty outside.

Sometimes gunshots can be heard from a nearby neighborhood where streets gangs wage turf battles.

But the Cubans are very grateful to the people of the nearby community, the vast majority of whom have been affected by Colombia's more than 50-year-old war with leftist rebels.

"We have received donations of clothing and food, or even just a few eggs. What little they have, they share," said 45-year-old Cuban Andy Sanchez.