Fabiola Santiago

New Trump travel policy takes Cubans back to old family separation standard | Opinion

There’s something about Cuba that assaults the heart when you least expect it.

On a clear chilly day in January, I stood atop windswept Mount Nebo in Jordan, the revered place where Moses, leader of the Exodus from Egyptian slavery, is said to have been bestowed with the view of the Promised Land by God.

This panoramic vista of the Jordan River Valley and the Dead Sea offers glimpses of Jericho and Jerusalem in the distance. It is here, our tour guide said, that God told Moses he was destined to contemplate the land of Canaan from afar — but he would never be able to enter it.

The biblical story touched me like no other.

As a Cuban exile in Miami, I’ve lived for almost 50 years now in a similar predicament, so close to the homeland yet never able to walk streets that were mine, bask in a sun that burns like no other, embrace people who are my people.

I am destined to “see” my native land only from afar.

I can travel there through the virtual reality of Google maps. I can keep the landscape and the people close to my heart through photographs, videos, and the rare family visit from the island. I can update the inside-Cuba story with the tales of every new arrival.

I can study and investigate Cuba as a journalist — and spend a lifetime writing about it.

But, like Moses, I cannot enter the forbidden land.

Will President Donald Trump’s new eye-for-an-eye visa policy for Cuban travelers change that?

I seriously doubt it.

The American political and economic isolation of Cuba under Trump has only made the Cuban government more paranoid, more dictatorial and more cemented in the belief that only totalitarianism can sustain the regime.

Punitive policies — with no incentive to democratize — have only emboldened Cuba’s leaders to repress more and to shove down people’s throats a new constitution that formalizes censorship, among other ills. And Trump policies have moved the government to open the doors of Cuba wider to bad actors like Russia and Iran, all too happy to fill the void.

In the last two years, Trump policies haven’t brought Cuba any closer to democratization. On the contrary, it has thrown back to dark days a Cuba that was modernizing — in tiny steps and with a hard-line sector in opposition, but still moving forward under President Barack Obama’s normalization of diplomatic relations.

And now the Trump administration’s harsher travel rules for Cubans on the island throws all of us back — in Cuba, Miami, and in every community in the United States where Cubans have settled — to the days of severely restricted family relations and suffering.

As it was, getting a tourist visa for a Cuban on the island was extremely difficult, as almost everyone is suspected of being a would-be immigrant wanting to overstay a visa and emigrate under the adjustment provisions of immigration law available only to Cubans.

Eliminating a five-year tourist visa that allowed Cubans to visit their families in the United States will only: 1.) hurt families who have to travel at an extraordinary cost to a third country to obtain visas in the aftermath of Trump’s near-dismantling of the U.S. Embassy in Havana; 2.) hurt the rising entrepreneurial sector that was coming here for supplies and training; 3.) hurt dissidents who come to raise money and update the world on Cuba in a way they can’t do from the island. 4.) lead to renewed illegal sea crossings like we saw Wednesday in Sunny Isles, when Cubans abandoned their boat made of Styrofoam and wood and disappeared into the undocumented population.

The U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, on Nov. 14, 2018. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Effective immediately, the hard-to-get B2 visa will only allow a single entry for a three-month stay. Mara Tekach, the U.S. Embassy’s charge d’affaires, said the change achieves reciprocity between U.S. visa rules and Cuba’s, which allow most Americans only single-entry tourist visas for up to three months.

How is it reciprocity when most Americans get their visas as part of airline ticketing or travel package (charges vary according to provider from $50 to around $75) and Cubans have to pay $160 plus the cost of airfare and hotel in a third country only to see their applications rejected?

I understand the desire to punish the repressive 60-year-old Cuban dictatorship.

But, on the other side of the Straits, my Cuban family lives with a similar longing to mine — to be allowed passage to the Promised Land of the United States of America, be it as visitors or immigrants.

Like Moses, most of us will die in our respective corners without seeing each other again.

It’s not God’s edict, but that of a mélange of characters who sit on opposite sides of the political spectrum — and impose the same hard line of separation and isolation: Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel and his supporting cast of Castro-styled Communist commandos on the one hand, and Trump and Cuban-American lawmakers who have never set a foot in Cuba yet craft policy for Trump, the likes of Sen. Marco Rubio.

These two ideological warring tribes have set back U.S.-Cuba policy decades during the last two years. The latest maneuver, however, is particularly macabre because the family separation used to be only of Cuba’s making.

It was Cuba that kept Cubans from leaving and visiting family.

It was Cuba that made travel difficult back and forth.

It was Cuba that punished those who left with permanent banishment, marking passports like mine “Nulo,” Void, at departure.

Cuban passport of Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago, marked “Nulo” (Void) when she left the country in 1969 as a child. Fabiola Santiago Fabiola Santiago

Now, it is Trump’s policies that build walls of separation. A three-month visa good for only one visit might sound normal if you’re from elsewhere, but nothing is normal between our two countries.

That morning in Jordan, walking on the footsteps of history, an unexpected tear rolled down my face.

Once again, Cuba had come to haunt me in some remote place of the planet.

Governments on both sides of the Florida Straits have made it my generation’s burden to pay the debt of leaving — or staying — and to endure the banishment.

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”