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Forced Labor, Forced Exile: The Cuban Professionals Sent Abroad To Work, Never To Return

Noel, a Cuban engineer who had to emigrate to the faraway island of Saint Lucia, tells about the Cuban government's systematic intimidation techniques and coercion of its professionals abroad. He now knows he can never go back to his native island — lest he should never be allowed to leave Cuba again.

Forced Labor, Forced Exile: The Cuban Professionals Sent Abroad To Work, Never To Return

Next stop, Saint Lucia

Laura Rique Valero

Daniela* was just one year old when she last played with her father. In a video her mother recorded, the two can be seen lying on the floor, making each other laugh.

Three years have passed since then. Daniela's sister, Dunia*, was born — but she has never met her father in person, only connecting through video calls. Indeed, between 2019 and 2023, the family changed more than the two little girls could understand.

"Dad, are you here yet? I'm crazy excited to talk to you."

"Dad, I want you to call today and I'm going to send you a kiss."

"Dad, I want you to come for a long time. I want you to call me; call me, dad."

Three voice messages which Daniela has left her father, one after the other, on WhatsApp this Saturday. His image appears on the phone screen, and the two both light up.

The girls can’t explain what their father looks like in real life: how tall or short or thin he is, how he smells or how his voice sounds — the real one, not what comes out of the speaker. Their version of their dad is limited to a rectangular, digital image. There is nothing else, only distance, and problems that their mother may never share with them.

In 2020, Noel*, the girls' father, was offered a two-to-three-year employment contract on a volcanic island in the Caribbean, some 2,000 kilometers from Cuba. The family needed the money. What came next was never in the plans.

Pressure from a diplomat

With the agreement and management of the Union of Caribbean Construction Companies (Uneca S. A.), Noel traveled to Saint Lucia.

Unlike other Cuban workers on the island, Noel felt comfortable because he had an apartment to himself. Still, some rules had bothered him since the beginning. Above all, workers had to ask for permission and inform the head of the mission every time they were going to leave the house, partly for security, but also for control.

He had broken up with the mother of his daughters and began a relationship with a Cuban woman who had been living on the island for some time and was not linked to any mission or collaboration of the Cuban Government in Saint Lucia. Their relationship eventually reached the ambassador's ears.

"You have to understand that they [referring to his girlfriend and her friends] are Cubans, but they are a different type of Cubans," the ambassador told him. He recommended that if he wanted to have sex, he should do it with the women of the mission.

The scheme and is anchored in the exploitation of workers.

The ambassador warned him to be careful with people who did not agree with the Cuban system, because it could affect his mission. Noel couldn't believe what he was hearing. He had been with the girl for months; they understood each other well, and so far she had not gotten involved in politics. He did not understand the reason for that intrusion.

"Ambassador, I am of legal age. When I see that there is something that goes against the mission regulations, I will know how to walk away," he replied, under pressure from the diplomat, who was also upset by the meeting.

The conversation that Noel had was not fortuitous, nor an isolated event. Resolution No. 168 of 2010 of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment outlines the Disciplinary Regulations for Cuban civilian workers who provide services abroad, including the duty to "inform the immediate superior of their love relationships with nationals or foreigners in the country where they collaborate”.

Under Article 8 of the regulation, relationships are "infractions of discipline related to the prestige and social conduct of collaborators" if they are with residents of the country where the mission is carried out who do not agree with the "principles and values of Cuban society" or with Cuban citizens, nationals or foreigners who are opposed to the Cuban Revolution.

Who defines the "principles and values of Cuban society"? Why does an employment contract limit freedom of movement, personal relationships and dictate rules of cohabitation?

Photo of people walking by Castries Market in Saint Lucia

Castries Market in Saint Lucia

Gene93k / Wikimedia Commons

A double sided story

More than a million Cubans have provided professional and technical services in 166 nations, official sources say. The most numerous and well-known cases come from healthcare workers, but other professionals and technicians have also been sent abroad.

In the book The Myths of the Cuban Revolution, researcher María Werlau explains that for decades, the government presented foreign missions as a gesture of altruism, but as of 2010 it recognized that it received payments through this channel.

"However, the scheme has always generated income for the Cuban State and is anchored in the exploitation of workers," says the founder of the Archivo Cuba project, an initiative to promote human rights and make visible the violations by the Cuban Government.

Fernández Estrada assures that "the Cuban State is an obligatory intermediary in the hiring of Cuban labor by foreign investors in Cuba and pays less than half than the foreign party, particularly for specialized personnel such as dredgers." The researcher recognizes in these procedures a measure of control: keeping people with a minimum income to limit their economic and political development.

Noel reconstructs his payday routine from memory during his year on mission. His salary amounted to US$2,000. On the day of the payment, they notified him of the Treasury Department, he had to go to the place, wait and pick up a check. From there, he would go to the bank and deposit the amount that appeared on the check in an account that was made for him when he arrived.

Of the $2,000, he kept $800 and was obliged to transfer $1,200 to Uneca, the entity through which he traveled to Saint Lucia. But the transfer was not made in U.S. dollars, but in Canadian dollars, and he lost even more in conversion fees.

Since he did not pay for electricity, only gas, his food and cleaning, Noel did not think it was bad to give 60% of his salary, compared to other Cuban workers, such as nurses. They lost 50% of their salaries, keeping about $600. "Of course, that was not enough at all," he says.

Other workers had to pay for electricity, which is expensive, and couldn't afford to turn on the air conditioning. Those who lived in a hotel were given a box of juice every day with their food, which they collected and then sold at the price of 1 East Caribbean Dollar (XCD), local currency equivalent to $0.371. That way, they could get some extra income without getting in trouble, but also without eating.

Weight of stigmas

Everything went more or less well until in June 2021, when Noel was told that his contract was going to end. They gave him a week's notice. He would complete just a year of work, when initially they had promised him two to three.

That was not in his plans, and he had not saved enough. He was told only that his contract was not being continued due to budget issues.

This was happening amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and there were no regular flights to Cuba. Noel decided to stay in Saint Lucia, filled with fear and stress.

Included in the disciplinary regulation for Cuban workers is the obligation to return to Cuba at the end of the mission. Even if the contract has ended, as happened to Noel, the mission does not end until the collaborator is back in Cuba.

The engineer knew that if he returned, they would not let him leave Cuba again.

Under the regulations, being expelled from a mission and returned to Cuba is the most severe disciplinary measure available. The Cuban government has also prohibits entry to Cuba for up to eight years for those who leave an official mission, although this is not written into the law.

By prohibiting the entry to Cuba of nationals who abandon the mission or do not wish to return to the island, the government has created a strategy of stigmatization and disqualification. "Deserters", they call them.

The official discourse constructs them as marginalized and unworthy, and deserving of punishment. A 2019 investigation by El Toque explains that “doctors, athletes, teachers, any professional who has refused to return in the middle of an employment contract, is accused of treason and their return is prevented. They are called 'inadmissible.'"

For the Cuban jurist Raudiel Peña, the eight-year ban is an illegitimate measure, with no legal basis to explain it; he argues that it is politically motivated and seeks to discourage the abandonment of official missions. “The Cuban Government many times excuses itself in the need to protect the human capital that the Revolution formed, but it really restricts, in an arbitrary and illegitimate way, the right to free transit, a human right recognized in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that Cuba signed in Feb. 2008, but has not ratified."

Screenshots of \u200bWhatsApp messages sent by Cuban officials to mission collaborators based on the island of Saint Lucia.

WhatsApp messages sent by Cuban officials to mission collaborators based on the island of Saint Lucia.

Screenshots/El Toque

Deciding to stay, despite the risk

Although Noel had no borders to cross in Saint Lucia, he also experienced the tensions that the Cuban institutional apparatus has created to intimidate and coerce the freedoms of its professionals abroad.

Nor did he tell a soul that he would stay in Saint Lucia. He consulted with his mother, sister and the mother of the girls; they approved of the decision. The engineers weren't as closely monitored as the doctors, and Noel’s co-workers had gotten used to him coming and going and out alone. He started slowly moving into a new apartment without anyone noticing.

“On the last day of work, I only had food from the refrigerator and a red backpack left at home. I collected everything, left the house clean and disappeared," he recalls.

That day they gave him a goodbye party; he finished his workday and did not return to the mission lodging. He changed his phone number and did not answer any more calls.

Ten days later, he found out that the head of the mission had asked about him at his old job. He reconnected to his old phone line and messages and calls began to come in, including one from the head of the mission.

He picked up the phone, and at the mission head's insistence, agreed to meet. "He didn't disrespect me, he didn't push me," he said. The mission head talked about his daughters, and the eight years he would have to wait to see them again. He suggested that Noel return, but the engineer knew that if he returned, they would not let him leave Cuba again. There was not an agreement, but there was a sense of peace. Noel was able to stop hiding.

A disgrace to the country

With the reactivation of the old line, the engineer also received long and offensive WhatsApp messages from the director of Uneca. He told him that he was a disgrace to the country.

He was also visited by supposed friends who suggested that he should not mix with certain Cubans — warnings disguised as advice about his Facebook posts against the administration of the Havana government.

“Here, there are many political differences between Cubans. They have put in place a division system that is astonishing; everyone distrusts everyone," he says.

It's a contemporary form of slavery.

Noel printed several copies of his curriculum, brought the legalized university degree from Cuba and translated it into English in his new place of residence. In Saint Lucia, a foreigner must pay 7,500 XCD (just over $2,700) to obtain a work permit. With those documents and without any recommendation, he went out to look for a job.

He was unemployed from June to Sept. 2021, while waiting for permission to work. He nearly ran out of money, though he saved by taking steps like eating just one meal a day. He had to borrow money to support himself for the first month at the new job because he ran out of cash. Today, he earns well and helps his family in Cuba.

Forced labor and slavery

With the eight-year ban, the Cuban State prevents Noel from fulfilling his duties of parental responsibility in the new Family Code, which says parents are required to "Live together, whenever possible, and to maintain permanent and meaningful family communication in their lives."

How do Noel and others defend themselves? To whom do Cuban men and women appeal without legal protection? Raudiel Peña maintains that when the person is outside the national borders, it is difficult to file a lawsuit, or an appeal. Perhaps a relative could start a case for the protection of constitutional rights, but Peña considers this an ineffective way out, due to the Cuban judicial system's lack of independence.

In a Nov. 6, 2019 letter, UN Special Rapporteurs Urmila Bhoola and Maria Grazia Giammarinaro addressed the Government of Cuba to draw attention to the working and living conditions of Cuban doctors on mission abroad, including teachers, engineers and artists subjected to similar circumstances. The rapporteurs described the work of Cuban professionals as "forced labor" under indicators set out by the International Labor Organization, and, therefore, as "a contemporary form of slavery."

Emigrating from Cuba was not Noel's first choice. Events pushed him to make the decision. Meanwhile, the Cuban government penalizes and abandons its nationals. It leaves a Cuban population hurt, far from home and devoid of resources to defend themselves, and increasingly upset.

*Pseudonyms have been used to protect the identities of those quoted.

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