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  HOME | Cuba

The Cuban ‘Tourists’ Trapped in Russia

MOSCOW – They arrive from Cuba as ‘tourists,’ but they haven’t come to visit Red Square, but rather to buy products to sell back in the island nation, to try to make it into the European Union or stay and make a living in Russia.

But the spread of COVID-19 has now left many of these people stranded in limbo.

“Give a Cuban a job, he’ll do what he has to do, but they have to pay us,” Yuvani Marquetti Elias, originally from the town of Alquizar, tells EFE from his house on the outskirts of Moscow.

Every year, around 25,000 Cubans come to Russia, where they can stay for three months visa-free, but only 25% of them register with immigration services, according to the Russian statistics office (EMISS).

Russia became one of the principal non-Spanish speaking destinations for thousands of Cubans looking for a better future since 2013, when residents of the Caribbean nation no longer needed authorization to travel abroad.

They soon discovered Moscow’s wholesale markets, dominated by Chinese and Central Asian merchants, whey they bought clothes and shoes to bring back and sell in Cuba, often at a lower price than offered by state-run outlets.

Others come looking for work, mainly in construction, either on their own initiative or attracted by intermediaries offering high incomes and a new life of opportunity. Those dreams are often shattered.

Now the coronavirus pandemic has stranded Cubans in Russia as authorities close down land borders and airspace amid a lockdown to stem the spread of COVID-19.

More than 100 Cubans working in the black market, popularly known as “mules” in their home country, have been cut adrift in Moscow by the lockdown, a city they barely know. They face a huge language barrier.

For almost two months, these Cubans have had no income to feed themselves or pay rent. There is no sign of when they will be able to return home.

“People who travel to Russia to buy products for Cuba usually come for seven days, because a longer visit doesn’t make economic sense,” Pedro Luis Garcia, a Cuban who has lived in the Russian capital for eight years and helps other Cubans with legal advice and food aid, tells EFE.

He says there are some apartments where more than 20 people share three or four bedrooms and the corridors are stacked with merchandise.

But they are not the only Cubans in Russia facing difficulties at the moment.

Those who arrived in Russia looking to start life from scratch have also become trapped in the lockdown.

“It’s not easy,” Yadira Mendoza, originally from Santa Clara, says.

COVID-19 has kept her confined to her apartment in a modular building in the south of Moscow, where she shares the space with her husband, brothers and three others.

They live in cramped conditions split between two bedrooms with just the minimum to get by. They are also here without documentation.

Yadira holds on to hope that things will get better, saying she came to Russia “for her family” and is not thinking of returning to Cuba, where she sold her home to fund her move to Europe.

Pedro Luis says many Cubans arrive in Russia without having learned about the country’s laws or language beforehand, which makes them vulnerable to scams.

Many were told that Russia formed part of the Schengen Area and many sought to use their stay as a launchpad into the European Union.

Yuvani shares the feeling that he has been wronged.

“We came with the idea of moving forward, of working,” he says.

He adds, without hiding his indignation, that he earned 3,000 roubles ($50) for two months’ work in a shop whose owners took advantage of his lack of legal documents.

He lives with his family in a half-constructed house. But the state of his living conditions does not stop his landlord charging him 36,000 roubles ($500) a month, an amount he does not have.

Yuvani has been driven to asking relatives at home to help pay for his rent, while his ability to feed his family depends on volunteers like Pedro Luis.

But this law graduate can only offer so much.

Sometimes he is able to secure two bags filled with pasta, flour, oil, spices, onions, eggs and a chicken. Occasionally he can provide hygiene products.

Pedro Luis says that some Cubans in Russia are living in dire conditions, and recalls the time he delivered products to a house that had no heating or water, and that was being shared by 39 people, among them a small child.

“Since I’ve been doing this around 500 people have got in touch with me,” he says.

Almost everyone who travels from Cuba to Russia is unaware of the necessary legal channels to formalize a migration status, and those who do still come up against an arduous process.

“It’s like a maze without an exit,” says Idalmis Moreno, who has been trapped in the bureaucratic swamp for two months.

Beginning the process in accordance with Russian law didn’t make a difference, she is still waiting for a response from the authorities. And even if you can somehow remain patient, money eventually runs out.

She currently shares a threadbare sofa bed with her husband and 78-year-old mother. The apartment she shares with her daughter, her son-in-law and three grandchildren, who have not been to school for two years.

Pedro Luis says: “It hurts to see people in these conditions, two years trying to get legal status.”

Idalmis’ daughter tried to return to Cuba with her three daughters, but it cost almost $438 to renew their four passports, a prohibitive sum for her.

Even if she was able to get the documents in order, the halt in international travel means it is impossible for her to travel home.

Cuba’s consul in Moscow, Eduardo Lazaro Escandell Santana, tells EFE that the Embassy was in “constant contact” with Cubans stranded in the Russian capital who have sought diplomatic assistance.

He said Cuban authorities were also on hand to help with legal advice and had provided options for those with financial or housing difficulties.


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