The Cuban Connection
Jesse is the kind of guy who knows everyone who is anyone when it comes to the refugee issue in Serbia. So when a smiling young man approached him during a discussion evening at KC Grad, a popular and trendy hangout in the centre of Belgrade, Jesse quickly worked out who he was. “This random guy is actually a brother of our vegetable supplier in Subotica,” Jesse explained to us. “We spend a lot on vegetables,” he added. “Once, we spent more than €15,000.”
That evening, in November 2017, Jesse met with vegetable suppliers who provide food to refugee camps in Serbia; veteran aid workers who have worked with refugees and asylum seekers in different parts of the world; journalists who have been covering this issue for years; and a number of ordinary volunteers – both domestic and international – who have followed the Balkan route from Greece to Serbia. These were the people who could tell us about conditions in the camps, what the people in them needed, and where a certain person who had worked at such-and-such-a-place had ended up. But what they couldn’t tell us was where to find the Cubans who had arrived in Serbia.
In January 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration, 168 Cuban asylum seekers were registered with reception centres across the country. Not all that many when compared to the almost 5,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Serbia at the time. But significant, if you take a look at a world map. As the crow flies, the distance between the two countries is more than 9,000 kilometres – a journey that would take about eleven hours, if there were a direct flight from Havana to Belgrade.
So when we went to Serbia to write about refugees and migration in the Balkans, we figured that the story of these Cubans was worth a closer look. Except that, at first, we had trouble finding them. We learned that some had not journeyed as far as Belgrade, or had already crossed into the European Union. Others, still living in limbo in the refugee camps, didn’t want to talk to journalists. But then, we got to Lazarevac.
Lazarevac, a municipality on the outskirts of Belgrade, is little different from many of the other industrial towns that are spread across the landscape of the former Yugoslavia. The main bus station hasn’t changed since the 1980s; the streets are poorly maintained; and the remaining socialist-era buildings have been turned into shopping malls. As for the local economy, its dominant feature is the pljeskavica (pronounced “plieskavitsa”) kiosks on almost every corner. This grilled dish of spicy pork, beef, and lamb served on flatbread is to Serbia what the hamburger is to America.
At around noon, we meet Julio and Emir at a bar on Lazarevac’s main avenue. The sky is grey and the air is tinged with the chill of approaching winter, but it doesn’t seem to affect their cheerful mood. The two men are in their thirties, and first got to know each other at the nearby Bogovadja refugee camp, where they both lived for seven months. But when they sit together and talk, they look like old friends. “Five days ago it was a year since we arrived in Serbia,” Emir says, looking at Julio, while we wait for our coffee to arrive.
Emir has a warm smile that puts you at ease. He has a four-year-old daughter, whom he had to leave behind in Cuba. She lives with his ex-wife, he explains. Emir is not the first member of his family to seek a better life abroad: he has a brother who lives in the United States. His friend Julio, who is shorter but no less warm in demeanour, also has family who have left Cuba. He has a sister in the US, and another sister who is currently seeking asylum in an EU country.
What made them leave Cuba? “Fidel Castro!” Emir exclaims. “He might have been a good president for my grandfather, but [he is] not anymore. People say that Cuba is such a great country, but we are not free. We can’t talk freely, we can’t elect a new president as we wish. Take Raúl Castro for instance, we didn’t choose him,” he says, referring to the then Cuban president, who has since been succeeded by Miguel Díaz-Canel, the former first vice-president.
In Cuba, under the constitution established in 1976, sixteen years after the revolution that overthrew the American-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, the president is elected by the 605 deputies of the National Assembly of People’s Power. These representatives, who serve for five years, are elected by the public from a list of candidates approved by the National Candidacy Commission. Since the constitution was established, the post of president has been held by just three men – with Fidel Castro holding the post for thirty-one years, until the accession of his brother, Raúl, in February 2008.
Julio, too, had craved more freedom, and a chance to see the world. “I am a free mind,” he says. “I wanted to travel: Nepal, Alaska, England … Wherever – everywhere!” But with the visa restrictions that come with having a Cuban passport, his prospects for travel and adventure were limited. Nevertheless, aged nineteen, he attempted to leave Cuba for the first time. He flew to Russia, where one of his sisters was living and working, in the hope that he too might get a job and settle there. But unable to find work, he was forced to return home a few months later. Despite this setback, Julio refused to give up, and a few years later he saved up for another ticket and flew to Moscow a second time.
Russia is one of several Eastern European countries – including Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia – that offer visa-free travel for Cuban passport holders, a legacy of the Cold War. So upon arrival in Moscow, Julio had no trouble taking a connecting flight to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. But there his problems began. Despite the country’s official visa-free policy for Cubans, Julio discovered that it was more difficult to enter Montenegro than he had imagined. At the airport, he was stopped by a police officer. “I begged the policemen to let me through,” he recalls. Eventually, the officer relented, and he was allowed to enter the country. A few days later, he crossed the border into Serbia.