Cubans Planning to Leave for U.S. Face a Bleak New Reality

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Hannah Berkeley Cohen, Azam Ahmed and Frances Robles for the New York Times.

Andrés Iván and his girlfriend grew up in Cuba but had long planned their future in the United States. She left four months ago to find work and made it to Miami, where she was legally welcomed. He stayed in Havana, knowing the United States’ special treatment of Cubans gave him the freedom to rejoin her and marry when the moment was right.

Those dreams were dashed on Thursday, when President Obama announced the immediate end of the longstanding policy under which any Cuban who made it to American soil was admitted and placed on a glide path to citizenship.

“Our relationship has been built on two things: love, and the idea that we will create a life together in the U.S. — whether that’s in one year or five,” Mr. Iván said here on Friday. “Now I have to realign my entire life plan.”

He is among an untold numbers of Cubans doing so, including what could be thousands stranded midjourney, whether by boat or by land, often through Mexico. Those who arrived at border stations in Arizona, California and Texas on Thursday were let in. Those still on the Mexican side were left to consider whether to try to sneak across or hire smugglers to take them into a country that as of Friday would treat them as illegal entrants, just like those from other countries.

Alexander Iglesias Rodríguez, 41, a veterinarian who reared cows in Cienfuegos on Cuba’s southern coast, left the country on Wednesday, six weeks after his wife and his son, Gabriel, 16. They flew to Mexico and then crossed the border in Matamoros.

He delayed his departure so as not to draw attention from immigration authorities in Cuba and Mexico. He sold his 1956 Pontiac, his 40-odd head of cattle and his two-bedroom house, pulling together about $12,000.

He was in Mexico about to cross into the United States when the order came down.

“So many years dreaming about this,” Mr. Iglesias said. Now he is in limbo, unsure if he should wait or make a stab at seeking asylum in the United States, a request the government does not always grant. “What do I have in Cuba? Nothing. My wife is in the United States. My son is in the United States. I sold everything I had. I can’t go back.”

Also eliminated on Thursday was a program that allowed Cuban doctors posted to other countries to more easily migrate to America, leaving Ayme Monges, 25, stuck in Bogotá, Colombia, on Friday with all her paperwork in order but nowhere to go.

“I got to the embassy this morning and they said, ‘You are Cuban? You can’t pass. That program is frozen,’” Dr. Monges, who had been working in Venezuela, said in a phone interview. “I am stranded here in this country.”

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The number of Cubans leaving for America has surged since the two governments resumed relations in late 2014, in expectation that the policy — known as “wet foot, dry foot” because those caught at sea were sent back but those who made it to dry land were allowed to stay — might end.

A senior official with the Department of Homeland Security, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in keeping with agency policy, said the administration decided to end the program immediately to prevent a mass exodus that would risk lives at land and sea.

In Cuba, the abrupt change seemed to further divide people along generational lines. Many older Cubans said the decision was a just one that would halt the steady drain of the nation’s citizens — especially educated ones like doctors — to America. One man, selling copies of the state-published newspaper Granma on the street, said the measure was necessary to stop “undermining the Cuban government” by enticing people to “throw their fates to the sea.”

But younger Cubans, for whom the prospect of a life in America offers a glimmer of hope amid economic hardship, were crushed, forced to envision a future with fewer options.

Cuban identity, and pride, is in no small part forged by its relationship with the United States, both in the tiny country’s defiance of its bigger neighbor and then in the unique privileges afforded to those who fled and made it to America. To be suddenly placed on equal footing with the millions of others around the world hoping to do the same was an especially hard fall.

In Havana, where until recently the internet has been out of reach for most ordinary Cubans, the city’s relatively new Wi-Fi parks have become stations of despair following the announcement. For a nation robbed of connectivity for more than a decade, the sudden surge of digital news — through email, messaging and social media — seemed like a particularly cruel way to find out their special treatment had ended.

A few blocks from the American Embassy, in the neighborhood of Vedado, the casual atmosphere changed suddenly as the news began to spread. Visitors checking their phones shared the news with those within shouting distance. One youth yelled to the gathered crowds: “Have you heard? This screws up all your lives.”

Miguel Alberto Escalona, 24, sat with his wife in a park in Vedado, bewildered. He sent a text to his family in Miami decrying the change. The news also brought to the surface frustrations for young Cubans, especially concerning the new dynamic that an increase in tourism is bringing to the nation.

Food prices have surged to meet the demand, while what scant resources the country are redirected to the well-heeled outsiders now flooding Cuba, especially Americans.

“I’m totally against the change in the law,” Mr. Escalona wrote to his family. “Here in Cuba, we have nothing to live for. Our country is for foreigners, not for our people, no wonder people want to leave.”

For years, most Cubans have been willing to overlook that the policy was unfair to other nationalities, especially to Central Americans, many of whom were fleeing violence at home. But for many on Friday, having had the policy and suddenly losing it was somehow worse, especially if you were in the midst of planning an escape.

One young man, who was building his own boat to take to America, sat in the Vedado park, stunned. He said he was nearly finished with the boat, and his departure had been imminent.

Those plans now dashed, he began browsing the web for a prospective bride, suggesting he would pay up to $3,000 to any woman willing to marry him and bring him to the United States.

“My plan A was to leave in a boat,” he said with a rueful smile. “So I guess my plan B is to marry an American woman.”

While Mr. Obama’s announcement was met with chagrin among some groups in Cuba, the government applauded the change in American policy, which they have long complained about, especially the program allowing Cuban doctors to immigrate to the United States.

Since the program began 10 years ago, nearly 10,000 Cuban medical professionals have been approved for residency in the United States. Many of them were Cuban doctors sent on medical missions to friendly countries like Venezuela, a program that critics of the Cuban government likened to human trafficking, since the government took in billions of dollars a year in fees from the doctors’ host countries.

For those without a career path, the loss of an American escape hatch left them with even fewer employment options.

It struck especially hard on those, like Mr. Iván, with deep ties to family and loved ones in the United States. (He declined to be identified by his full name for fear of reprisal by the Cuban government.)

His brother made the trek four years ago, through Mexico, and is now living the American dream: a mortgage, a car and a job that pays him a living wage.

Now, Mr. Iván is left with a deep-seated remorse for having not acted sooner. And he wonders if he will ever be reunited with his girlfriend.

On Friday morning, he was even having trouble reaching her, given the still-spotty communication in Cuba. He checked his phone incessantly, hoping for a text from her.

“With each blow like this, I feel farther and farther away from you,” he typed to her, frustrated about the shaky Wi-Fi connection.

Accepting the reality of the new situation, and without a plan, he sent another message: “I want you to know that no matter what happens, I will always love you.”

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