Cubans say defection was tough decision
BY ANDREA ELLIOTT
TORONTO - The young Cuban student waited for silence.
When the house was empty, he slipped out the back and jumped onto a bus to Toronto's Union Station. He was startled to run into another member of his Catholic tour group -- a doctor who had lodged with the same host family.
''Where are you going?'' the doctor asked.
''No, where are you going?'' replied the student.
"I'm going where you're going.''
The young men were doing what thousands of Cubans have done:
risking everything for a chance to live anywhere but Cuba. They are among
the 23 Cubans who
defected more than a week ago in Toronto, where their 200-member Catholic delegation had traveled to attend a Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II on July 28. At least 16 have applied for political asylum in Canada.
Their act of defiance was one of the biggest mass defections
of Cubans traveling overseas. Aware of the potential embarrassment to the
Cuban government, they
granted interviews to The Herald on condition that neither their real names nor the location of their interviews be disclosed. They fear retaliation against the families they left behind.
Most planned their escape in pairs or trios, with the help of friends in Toronto or relatives in Miami. Several arrived in Canada with phone numbers they had been given by family and friends in Cuba -- in case they needed to contact one of the several thousand Cubans living in Canada.
Others carried only the desire to flee Cuba permanently.
YOUTH WANT TO LEAVE
''In Cuba, most of the youth want to leave, to experience all
the things they say about the world,'' said a 24-year-old engineer who
defected. ``But to be here, in the
reality of this place, is to know that here you can follow dreams you could not follow in your own country. That made me realize I could do it.''
Most of the travelers had been placed with Catholic host families in Toronto. Starting days before the papal Mass, the defectors began to leave these homes and head for ''safe houses'' before delegation leaders could stop them. Although the Cuban government reported 23 defectors, local activists have counted 18. Some may still be in hiding.
The engineer, the student and the doctor are among seven defectors
being housed in a church basement by a Peruvian minister -- six of them
friends from the same
eastern region in Cuba. By chance, the delegation had visited the church several days after it arrived in Toronto.
''In many of their faces, I saw the desire to stay,'' said the 66-year-old Peruvian minister, who also asked that his name not be disclosed. ``I told them they have God in their hearts and freedom in their humanity.''
KNOCK AT DOOR
On July 28, following the pope's Mass, the minister heard a knock at the door.
''You are Cubans?'' he asked ''Luis,'' the engineer, and his friend ``Pedro.''
"And you want to stay behind?''
Luis and Pedro -- not their real names -- decided separately that they would defect, and both leave behind families they might not see for years.
''The punishment of separation is three years when one leaves,'' said legal assistant Andres Perera, who is representing 16 of the defectors, including Luis and Pedro. "There's a list of people who have been waiting five to seven years to see their families.''
The hardest part for Pedro was calling his wife of six months to say he would not return. He hopes she will join him in Toronto one day.
''It's the hardest decision I've made in my life. You pay a great price and I am paying it,'' he said softly after calling home Thursday afternoon with a $5 calling card.
Pedro was chosen to join the tour in March.
''I always knew that one day I was going to see the world en vivo [live] -- and not through media or maps. And that this day would be marvelous,'' said the 27-year-old former store manager.
He never thought he would defect. But three days into the trip, he made up his mind. ``There are differences in everything. Economically, socially, religiously . . . Here there is a church every two blocks.''
Pedro and Luis -- close friends for years in Cuba -- stuck together during the trip and by July 26, Pedro could not contain the news that he planned to defect. He took Luis into the parking lot outside the host family's home.
'I needed to tell someone. I sat him on the floor and said, `Look. I am staying,' '' recalled Pedro. ``I risked telling someone without knowing what he was thinking.''
Luis nodded but said nothing. He later called home and his mother -- he is an only child -- gave him her blessings, he recalled, his eyes filling with tears.
By July 28, Pedro and Luis had hatched their plan: After the Mass they would retrieve their bags from a hiding place and find the church.
''If it wasn't the church, it would have been Union Station or the police or whatever place. We were ready to sleep on a bench,'' Pedro said.
''Asela'' and ''Yanina'' -- both 25 -- have not left each other's sight since they defected Sunday afternoon.
''Last night I couldn't sleep thinking someone would break through the door,'' said Asela, an English teacher and youth leader in her church in Cuba. She and Yanina especially fear Cuban spies.
''When the phone rings it gives me terror,'' Asela said.
The pair share a twin bed in a boxy room next to the church.
Around their necks they wear matching black plastic satchels carrying their
savings -- several hundred
Their ticket to freedom was a phone number Yanina carried of a Cuban she knew in Toronto. After Sunday's Mass, the women told their Filipino hosts that ''a friend'' would take them to the delegation meeting place for their return to Cuba.
Instead, the man housed them for four nights.
They found their friends after they saw Perera on CNN saying he knew some Cubans were at a church.
For Asela, the hardest part is knowing that she disappointed members of her church in Cuba. Soon after she defected, she sent her priest an e-mail to say it was a tough decision.
He began his reply with the word ''mentirosa,'' which means ''liar,'' she said.
''It made me cry a lot,'' Asela said. ``He told me that those
were empty words. That I had left my church, my mother, my husband, my
house, my dog, my country.
That I might not have valued those things in Cuba, but I would learn their meaning here.''
Reports that Cuban church officials criticized the defection in harsh words have wounded the exiles. Cuban activists in Toronto have reported that two defectors were either pressured or forced to go back by priests who told them their defection would ``harm the church.''
''Do you know what they're saying about us in Cuba? That we are
traitors of our country and of our church. I didn't betray the country.
I don't accept the way the
government runs it,'' Pedro said. ``I did not betray the church. We are leaders. We play an important and strong role in the lives of youths. But no one has the right to tell us to give up our dreams.''
A long journey remains before the young defectors can reach those
dreams. Most say they want to stay in Toronto, but face a 1 ½-year
process to achieve refugee
status -- if it's granted.
They can stay at the church for two more weeks before they must move to a shelter if nothing else comes up.
The Peruvian minister said he would try to place them in a shelter together.
''We'll try to stay together no matter what,'' Yanina said.
''But, in the end, life will separate you,'' the minister said. ``I have migrated. I know what this is about.''