By: Fernando F Hermida
José Carlos Olazábal was studying medicine in Havana when the whole country exploded into pieces. It was July 2021 and the heat of the island had made the most desperate situation that Cuba had experienced in half a century. Thousands of people were taking to the streets to demand freedom and food from the government and he had abandoned he decided to leave his classes at the university with some friends to join the mob. The island was burning from end to end and José Carlos felt like he was being part of his country’s history for the first time.
José Carlos and Pablo had studied together since high school, life had brought them together in the same classroom of all the schools where they had studied and the love for medicine had ended up armoring a friendship that promised to last forever. Both young men shared not only their passion for anatomy but also the frustrations of living in a country that had long since thrown its future out the window.
They had fewer and fewer friends left in Cuba. Daniela and her parents had built a rustic wooden raft and had sailed in the Florida Straits a few weeks ago; Eduardo, the skinny one, had written to them from Serbia in the middle of an endless journey to Spain. The twins from the neighborhood were working in a deli in Uruguay and Mirita was waiting for the moment to start the journey from Nicaragua to the Mexican border with the United States: that seemed the most promising route. A few months after the riots, Daniel Ortega’s government, in a political trickery with his Cuban ally, had lifted the visa requirements for Cubans and now the uncontainable flight from the island was becoming an escape valve for Havana, which preferred to lose its young people rather than promise them a country worth living in.
Armandito’s bar was getting emptier and emptier. The same crazy lights, the same drinks, the same marijuana hidden under the counter, everything seemed unchanged except the clientele. Maria Carla, General Perdomo’s daughter, was the only one who still seemed to be having fun. They still remembered the last party in their Miramar mansion with exclusive attendance. Neither José Carlos nor Pablo had ever seen so much food in their lives. The drinks, all imported, were consumed with fruition by the young people of the Havana jetset, the children of politicians and generals. It was there that José Carlos learned what achis was and what cocaine looked like. The party was mind-blowing and opulent; outside, however, the country was languishing in idleness and hunger.
That morning Mirita’s email would change the young people’s lives. She told them in detail how to plan a trip to Nicaragua, where to stay in Managua, and how to get a coyote to guide them across the Central American isthmus to the U.S. border. Pablo was able to get a cousin living in Miami to get the tickets and lend him the money for the trip.
José Carlos had some money saved up but he had also turned to some friends to make up the $10,000 that would cost them a three-hour trip and from there overland to the north. The night before was difficult. They could not sleep. They were leaving the country for the first time and that made their stomachs tighten. José Carlos’ grandfather, an old revolutionary of the old guard had given in to wish his grandson a good trip and, in tears, demanded that he call him as soon as he arrived.
Already at the airport, the long queue for the check-in added more tension to the trip. No one had come to see them off as they had agreed. Pablo did not arrive, did not arrive. Until he finally showed up and spat out the truth of his tardiness: “Hey, I’m staying” An explosive silence froze the morning greeting. José Carlos did not understand what was happening, but he took a deep breath, hugged his friend and turned his back not only on Pablo but also on a country that was inoculating fear and compromising the future of his entire generation. Tomorrow I will be free, he thought and boarded the plane.