Havana, Cuba – At 63, Mirta cries in secret. During the day, she holds back her tears so that her eyes do not reveal her worries to her eight-year-old grandson Anibal. She doesn’t know how to explain to him that the repeal of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy – which allowed Cubans who had reached the United States to remain there and later apply for residency – has left his parents stranded in Costa Rica. She has no idea when they will see each other again.
Anibal’s parents left Cuba two weeks ago, heading first to Guyana. They have already crossed the borders of four Central American countries aiming to reach the US. But their trip was interrupted on January 12, when the Cuban government and the outgoing Obama administration reached an agreement that cancels several annexes of the Cuban Adjustment Act, of which the “wet foot, dry foot” policy was a part.
Cubans such as Anibal’s parents will now no longer have preferential treatment on reaching the US and will instead be treated like migrants of other nationalities.
Mirta uses the wi-fi in a park in the Havana neighbourhood of Vedado to make a video call to Anibal’s parents. On the screen of her smartphone, Anibal’s parents cry. Mirta tries to be encouraging. She gives Anibal the phone so that he can speak to them.
“My parents are going to bring me many toys and a Playstation when they come back from the trip,” he says after the call has ended. His grandmother runs her hand over his head.
Then he runs away to play in on the grass.
“They intended to go to the United States, and from there claim their child,” Mirta explains. “But the change of law took them along the way and now they don’t know what to do because they will no longer be allowed to cross the border with Mexico.”
She will now have to take custody of her grandson.
“I do not mind taking care of him, but no one deserves to grow up without their parents,” she says.
But if the election of Donald Trump had alarmed many Cubans, Obama’s final act as president with respect to their country has left them even more concerned about what the new president may mean for them.
“Obama did things that nobody believed, but now his successor is a man who can do anything, even return to ‘dry feet, wet feet’ and Cubans once again dying in the sea or in the jungles of Central America,” says Gloria Fernandez, 36, who specialises in dental medicine.
Gloria and her brother Armando Fernandez have not heard from their parents since they were children. They believe they drowned trying to reach the US. “In trying to seek a better future and chasing the American dream, our parents launched in 1990 on a raft to the sea and we never heard from them again,” says Armando, 33, an electrician.
On the last Friday of each month, the siblings take white flowers to the pier as an offering to their parents. There, they sit, talking to their souls.
“There is a great fear that Trump will destroy everything that Obama has built between Cuba and the United States,” says Gloria, looking at the sea.
Tears roll down the face of 65-year-old Elena Rodriguez. She sold her small apartment in the Arroyo Naranjo municipality on the outskirts of Havana with the intention of leaving the country. A week later, Cuba and the US signed their new immigration agreement, shattering her hopes of joining her family in the US.
Elena is now homeless and sleeping in a neighbour’s house. “I sold it for 4,000 Cuban convertible pesos ($4,000) so I could go fast. That gave me enough to buy the ticket and then to jump the border at Mexico,” she says.
Her three children and seven grandchildren have all left Cuba over the past decade. “They were tired of fighting every day in the street to eat a plate of food and dress well, to be able to go out on weekends. I understand them, they did not deserve to live in those conditions,” says Elena.
“I have lost everything. I don’t have a home, not even money because I already spent part of it on the tickets. I do not know what I’m going to do,” she says, slumping into her wooden rocking chair.
Elena’s neighbour says she will do what she can to help, at least taking care of her possessions until she can find somewhere else to settle, but that she cannot do more.
“I do not care about Trump or Obama,” Elena reflects. “I do not know what I’m going to do with my life …. I do not want to be here any more.”