Under Biden immigration program, a Cuban dissident finds poetry in building a new life in Miami
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For 15 minutes a day, Amaury Pacheco pulls out his phone and plays with the app Duolingo, the tool helping him learn to speak better English.
His daughter sits atop the couch cushion next to him, peering down at the phone, as he strokes his long gray beard, thinking through the answers.
“A job,” calls a voice in the app.
“A job,” he responds.
“I need a job.”
“I need a job,” he repeats.
The application sounds the bell of a correct answer. Pacheco pumps his fist, proud of himself.
The 54-year-old Afro-Cuban poet is starting a new life in a new country, weeks after being admitted into the United States through a humanitarian parole program first created last October by the Biden administration. The program aims to ease the crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border. So far, more than 240,000 people from four countries — Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela — have been admitted to the U.S. under the program.
The story of Pacheco and his family's escape illustrates the factors that have led so many people from nearby countries to flee here — and the uncertainty that awaits them in their newly adopted country.
For decades, Pacheco has been at the forefront of Cuba’s independent art scene. In 1997, he co-created the Omni-Zona Franca, a collective of poets and multidisciplinary performance artists that pushed the envelope on what the Cuban communist government could tolerate. In 2016, it was forced to cease under government pressure.
Two years later, Pacheco co-founded the artist collective Movimiento San Isidro in opposition to a law that enshrined censorship of the arts and cultural events. By 2020, the group staged a historic sit-in protest and poetry reading at the Cuban Ministry of Culture in protest of the arrest of Cuban rapper Denis Solis.
Detained in Cuba
Most recently, the San Isidro Movement — named after the Havana neighborhood where it is based — helped spark the historic nationwide protests that took place on July 11, 2021. As Pacheco was on his way to Havana to join the protests, he was detained for the day at a police station.
“From there, I could see the people they were bringing in and what they were saying. What happened, what the state did to them, the blows they suffered,” Pacheco told WLRN in Spanish.
Earlier that day, Pacheco was with Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, an internationally known activist, fellow artist and co-founder of the Movimiento San Isidro. After the protests, the state threw Otero Alcántara in a maximum security prison, where he faces up to seven years on charges of anti-government activity. The government considers Otero Alcántara and the Movimiento San Isidro one of the biggest threats to its 64-year stranglehold on power.
After the protests, Pacheco said his life came under constant surveillance. State officials watched him and his family’s every move and stood guard outside their East Havana home to restrict their movements.
When he could leave his home, the weight of increased government oppression following the protests and a growing economic crisis noticeably changed the mood of the country.
“There is an emptiness in the streets," he said. "It’s like Cubans are disappearing. Like the people are disappearing bit by bit. ‘This person left, another person left.’ It’s an emptiness. An existential emptiness."
"It’s like Cubans are disappearing. Like the people are disappearing bit by bit. ... It’s an emptiness. An existential emptiness."Amaury Pacheco, Afro-Cuban poet
Things were in worse economic shape in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union — the so-called "Special Period" — and the financial help that came with it, he said. But in those days huge numbers of people still had some faith in dictator Fidel Castro, and there “was a certain amount of hope in pushing through, in moving forward."
“But now we are worn down emotionally, worn down spiritually, worn down politically,” said Pacheco.
Hope is gone, he said. What exists is oppression, violence and control.
Over the course of the last two years, with friends and family feeling the full weight of the government's watchful eye, he prepared mentally to leave the country.
The humanitarian parole program, which is being challenged in federal court by Florida and 20 other Republican-led states, was his ticket out.
One son forced to remain
Nearly two years ago, Pacheco's wife, Iris Ruiz, had to leave Cuba to seek medical care for a range of conditions. The communist government, she said, strategically prevented her from getting the treatment. She suspects it was because of her family's political activism.
The United States Embassy in Cuba helped her get a tourist visa to receive medical treatment in the U.S. She left the country in October of 2021 on a flight with two of the couple’s six children.
“We got to the Miami airport at 2 a.m., and by 9 a.m. they were already hospitalizing me, and I stayed in the hospital for a month,” Ruiz said in Spanish.
After one month in the hospital, she felt much better. But since then she hasn’t been able to do follow-ups with doctors, because she doesn’t have medical insurance and cannot afford to make required cash payments. Ruiz and her two children have since overstayed their tourist visas, leaving them “without papers,” she said. They have applied for political asylum.
When Ruiz heard that the humanitarian parole program was being launched for Cubans last January, she felt a wave of relief that her family might be able to reunite in the U.S. But the news also came with the stress of finding a fiscal sponsor for Pacheco and the three children that remained in Cuba.
“It’s like someone gives you an elephant as a gift, but you need to carry it home,” she said with a laugh.
Ultimately, the couple found a sponsor who paid three months rent for a house in Brownsville.
“It’s been wonderful for the whole family to be able to reunite. Really, it’s been happiness for everyone,” she said. “Even though one of our sons is still in Cuba. He’s in prison.”
The couple’s oldest son was arrested at the Jose Martí International Airport in Havana when the family was on the way to join Ruiz in Miami. He was charged with a robbery that allegedly took place months earlier, something Ruiz said defies all logic since no victim has been presented and the family was under constant surveillance since the July 2021 protests.
“They weren’t going to allow a totally happy reunion. They had to go and invent something,” she said of the Cuban government.
'It's a complicated country'
Even with her brother locked up, 11-year-old Kali Pacheco Ruiz said coming to Miami and reuniting with her mother and siblings has been a blessing.
“When we got here, I got very emotional. I saw my mom running, and I ran to her,” Kali said, in Spanish. She rushed to her brother and sister and gave them hugs. “It was a really emotional experience.”
In Miami, Kali marvels at the buildings, and she has taken a liking to riding the Metrorail. Her parents are signing her up to start classes, and she hopes she will like the new school here more than her old one in Cuba.
“Everything was bad,” she said of her old school on the island. “The bathrooms are ugly, ugly, ugly.”
With none of the new arrivals enrolled in classes or working yet — the new Pacheco Ruiz home is buzzing with activity. The children spend the days reading manga comics they picked up at the public library, playing basketball at the park down the street, listening to K-Pop and singing along in Korean.
Fourteen-year-old Samadhi Pacheco Ruiz came two years ago with her mother and has taken charge of giving daily English lessons. She uses children's instructional videos that she found on YouTube.
In Cuba, Samadhi had a solid group of friends. They would hang out all the time and make plans weeks in advance. She hasn't yet found a similar circle in Miami.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to find something you like to do in this country,” Samadhi said in a halting English that is growing in confidence. “Like, aquí no sé qué hacer [here, I don't know what to do] most of the time. ... Qué me espere en el futuro, no sé, pensar mucho en el futuro [what awaits me in the future, I don't know. I think a lot about the future]."
Taking after her father, who lives and breathes in a world of ideas, she wants to study philosophy.
Pacheco reflected on how his children are experiencing the process of moving to the U.S., compared to how he is. He knows some people who live in Miami, many of whom spent years under the thumb of the Communist government.
“You want to leave an oppressive country like Cuba. And then your kids tell you they feel like they have freedom there, because they don’t understand yet how it works [in Cuba]. Over there, they can go play, they can go out. It’s a strange kind of freedom, a specific kind of freedom,” Pacheco said.
But in Miami, he said, his phone has received several Amber Alerts notifying him of children who have gone missing. It makes him nervous.
“It’s a complicated country," he said, "but to grow, you have to go through it."
New life in America
Pacheco is under no illusions that this next chapter of his life will be easy.
“Changing countries, changing my ideological perspective — how to insert myself into this country, how to continue my battle — these have been questions and they remain questions,” Pacheco said.
Since arriving, his American life has been consumed by the practical matters of migration. Getting his vaccines so he can apply for a work permit, signing up for food stamps to feed his family in the meantime, and registering his children for school.
“For me, it’s important to learn all the procedures, to learn the bureaucracy. Because from there I’ll learn how the country is structured,” he said.
“Here, now it’s: How do I center myself? How do I establish myself? For me, that’s my activism right now. In that, there’s poetry.”Amaury Pacheco
Pachecho is learning to adjust to the harsh realities of capitalism after a lifetime spent under the harsh realities of a communist system. “I’m trying to understand it, to tell you the truth,” he said.
Once he obtains a work permit, he hopes to work in the art world — a world he knows well. But he just got here, and already feels the clock ticking. The prospect of having to start paying rent in a few months in the most unaffordable housing market in the nation sits heavily on his shoulders.
No matter what, Pacheco said he will not leave activism against the Cuban government behind. It just might look different in the U.S.
“There, you are in a constant element of fire. You are inside the beast of a regime, and you have to behave in a specific way in that context,” he said. “When you are here, it’s a different logic. It’s something that I need to understand, and I am working on it.
“Here, now it’s: How do I center myself? How do I establish myself? For me, that’s my activism right now," Pacheco said. “In that, there’s poetry.”
The stakes are high for migrants desperate to escape Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela — and for President Biden's re-election campaign. In the WLRN News series Waiting for America, we take a deep look at a humanitarian parole program for people from crisis-torn countries in Latin America and the Caribbean — a key Biden administration immigration policy — one year later.