It has now been three years since I packed my suitcases in Zurich and together with my son, then eight, decided to return to live in my country. So this may appear to be a simple story of an immigrant returning to her homeland, but for the fact that we both had left “permanently.” I will not explain the twisted concept that begins to take effect after one has been outside the country for 11 months, because everyone – those inside and outside – know it very well.*
Once the decision was made to return to the island, we bought roundtrip tickets, sent our passports to the Cuban consulate in Bern to get the authorization stamps, and took a plane with a stopover in Paris. At the Cuban airport we get the usual questions about the reason for our trip, to which my son and I responded with the learned script, “We have come for two weeks to visit family.” In the scant twenty kilos of luggage we have all our personal belongings, having made sure that none betray that this is a journey of no return.
They approve the two weeks included in the ticket and insure that our names echo on the loudspeakers in the José Martí airport, without which we would never get to occupy the seats we bought. Then begins the search for information, to know the risks and possible results of a “passion to stay.” Everyone I asked about whether they knew of any other cases that could serve as a guide to me, opened their eyes wide and told me, “You are crazy.” So yes, an unusual madness, little seen, rarely documented… but delirious in the end.
My friends thought I was joking, my mom refused to believe that her daughter no longer lived in Switzerland, the land of milk and chocolate, and my neighbors thought Mata Hari had returned from Europe. The key was given to me by someone I bumped into: “The only thing you have to do is destroy your passport. Without a passport they can’t force you to get on the plane.” With this act, I experienced, for a few months, what it’s like to be undocumented in your own country.
On August 12, 2004, I presented myself to provincial immigration to announce, “I am me, even though I have no documents to prove that I have come to stay.” What a surprise when they told me: go to the end of the line for “returnees” and tell lieutenant Sarahi to give you the form for getting an identity card. One man returning from Spain with his wife and daughter, after living there five years, told me, “Don’t worry, they will try to force you to go but you can refuse. The worst thing that can happen is that you will be detained for two weeks, but the jail is right here and the mattresses are the best.” I breathed easy… at least sleeping was guaranteed.
They made a “stayed” file for me and warned me that “never again would I return from leaving the country” and that they were being lenient with me because I had a son to care for. I didn’t get to try the famous mattresses because I couldn’t keep him with me, nor could he be left in the street. The key that “greased the skids,” is that I did not have any property that was confiscated when I left – who in Generation Y owns any property in Cuba? – and in addition I could count on being welcomed back into the nuclear family where I had lived before. Every week I would have to present myself at immigration control until October 2004, at which time I would be issued new identity papers. The ration quota would be returned to us in the middle of December… and everything would be back to the way it was.
I don’t tell this story to explain what many still see as a senseless act, but rather to tell those who at times have wondered what to do, it is possible. It is not so unattainable or unusual as the entangled immigration laws and decrees would have us believe. For months, from Zurich, I surfed the internet looking for some testimony that would tell me, “you can,” but I found only words of surprise, suspicion and denial. So, thinking about other demented people, like myself, who are considering the idea of coming back to stay, I have written this “Chronicle of a Return.”
*Translator’s note: Cuban citizenship and travel laws are too complicated to try to explain here. Briefly, however, a citizen who leaves the country for more than eleven months without making special arrangements, may not be allowed return.