The Miami Herald
June 11, 2008

Some Cuban emigrants head back home


Jorge's friends at work call him the "Sixth Hero.''

Folks here figure Jorge must be the secret spy who got away. Why else would he have returned to Cuba after living in the United States for six years? The ''sixth hero'' reference relates to the five Cuban intelligence agents the Cuban government nicknamed ''the Five Heroes'' who are serving long U.S. prison sentences.

Despite the freedom Jorge enjoyed and the ability to earn a better living as a school custodian in Miami Beach, Jorge returned to Cuba in 2002 to face a government that mistrusted him, a year of probation and friends who assume he is a member of the intelligence service. He said he is one of a growing number of émigrés who after years of living abroad yearn for the sounds and familiarity of home.

So they pack a few things and return to a country where they might make in a month what they used to earn in an hour.

Jorge says he feels now like a TV mute button -- every time he walks into a room, everyone stops talking.

''The government here thinks you are CIA, and the people think you are state security who went to the United States and came back after completing your mission,'' said Jorge, 47, who works as a guitarist. 'The others just think you are crazy for coming back. But, you know, every now and then someone visiting from Miami passes by my house and asks me, `I want to come back, too. How did you do it?' ''

It was not easy. Just like leaving Cuba legally is filled with bureaucratic red tape, so is returning.

Cubans who leave for longer than 11 months are considered permanent residents of someplace else, so they must reapply for identity papers, then report monthly to immigration for a year until they are cleared.

It's unclear whether people who left Cuba without the required exit papers can ever legally return.

'I went to immigration and said, `I'm not going back. Like it or not, I'm staying,' '' Jorge said. ``They did not take it so well.''

The Cuban government does not publish statistics on people who return to the island. It's clearly a tiny portion of the tens of thousands of Cubans who leave each year for the United States and Europe.


At least 20,000 Cubans migrate legally to the United States every year, and the vast majority return only to visit.

Well-known Havana blogger Yoani Sánchez returned to Cuba from Zurich four years ago with her 8-year-old son in tow. She says friends advised her to rip up her passport so the Cuban government could not force her to leave again.

In her Generation Y blog, she describes how she showed up at a provincial immigration office and was simply told to get in line -- behind all the other ``crazies.''

'A man who returned from Spain with his wife and daughter after living there five years told me, `Don't worry, they are going to try to force you to leave, but you have to refuse. The worst thing that happens is that they detain you for two weeks, but the jail is right here, and the mattresses are quite fine,' '' she wrote.

Sánchez never did have to test the jail mattresses.

''People think it's weird for you to return, but in any other place in the world, leaving for a few years and coming back is the most normal thing,'' she said in a telephone interview. ``It's Cuban law that makes it absurd.''

She lived in Switzerland for two years with her husband and child but came back for family reasons. She has encountered several people who did the same thing.

''Some . . . had elderly parents who were alone. Some never adapted to where they were or had property issues to deal with here,'' she said. ``Some come back for love, because they never could get their family member out of Cuba.''

Jorge left Cuba in 1996 with his wife when they won the visa lottery, and landed first in Oregon, where they stayed for two years. The couple eventually moved to South Florida but never felt comfortable, in part because they found the exile community too politicized. Jorge did like the freedom, the right to speak out in public, and still misses the polite manners and clean streets. But he grew weary of mopping floors and washing dishes for a living instead of playing music.

''It was hard to integrate,'' he said. ``I think I always knew I would come back. For me, it had nothing to do with politics. It has to do with being Cuban, the love I have for my people and my land.''

In 2002, the couple brought $20,000 in savings back to Havana and returned to stay, moving back to the home where Jorge's mother-in-law lives. They used the money to renovate the home, but the marriage was on the rocks and did not last.

Jorge's ex stayed in the renovated house, and he now lives in a tiny studio on the same property, a bit worse off than he did in Miami Beach. He plays the guitar at a local tourist restaurant and makes a decent enough living off tips.

He has no regrets.

Andy Gomez, senior provost at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said cases of returnees are isolated. Twenty years ago, it was virtually unheard of.

''Some people left loved ones behind and just miss them. Others just can't psychologically adjust to a free society,'' Gomez said. ``The longer you live in that system, the more difficult it is to break the psychological barrier.

``You are trapped in two systems, so what do you do? You revert to the old.''

Katrin Hansing, associate director of Florida International University's Cuban Research Institute, said that in the dozen years she lived in Cuba, she met about nine people who had returned from living abroad. Most did so because they longed for a sense of community and could not fit into the South Florida rat race, she said.


''There is a tremendous pressure to come here and make it; to go back is seen as failure,'' Hansing said. ``When they go back, they keep a very low profile in Cuba. It breaks the myth that people come here and find bliss. Neither place is paradise.''

If the Cuban government made the process easier, Hansing said, more probably would return.

For Silvia, the daughter of government officials who lived a comfortable life in Cuba, the decision to return to the island after six months in the United States was easy: She ran out of money and had nowhere to go.

''I hate Fidel Castro, but does that mean I should work in a cafeteria?'' she said. ``I am 44 years old, and the first and only time in my life I went hungry was in the United States. Here, I live in a four-bedroom house and have a car. Over there, I had to live in an apartment the size of a table.''

Silvia did not suffer the bureaucratic hassles the others endured, because she was in South Florida and Los Angeles for less than 11 months.

The Cuban government told blogger Sánchez that once her paperwork was processed that she could never leave again. That is not an issue for her -- at least not now.

''I want to live many more years here, but I am not closed to anything,'' Sánchez said. ``I don't believe in false patriotism. I am a citizen of the world, and I feel happy anywhere. For now, I'm good here.''

Jorge says he is glad he came home, too.

''I have a lot of nice memories of Oregon,'' he said. ``It's a very beautiful place. But I always knew I was coming back.''

The Miami Herald withheld the name of the correspondent who wrote this report and the surnames of some people quoted because the reporter did not have the journalist visa required by the Cuban government to report from the island.