Cubans are flocking to Guyana for economic reasons — but there's a twist

Cuban shoppers are attracted by low-cost goods in Guyana. Some resell their purchases at home to finance trips to Guyana to apply for visas at the U.S. Embassy.
Cuban shoppers are attracted by low-cost goods in Guyana. Some resell their purchases at home to finance trips to Guyana to apply for visas at the U.S. Embassy. Special to the Miami Herald

Frank Alvarez spends his days in this English-speaking nation in South America helping fellow Cubans shop. He uses his Spanish skills at a small store, so steady streams of Cubans can snap up inexpensive T-shirts, shoes and other Asian-made goods they’ll take back to the island.

This month the buyers began to change.

Since early June, the U.S. government has been conducting interviews at its embassy here for Cubans seeking U.S. immigrant visas, and those visa applicants are now in the shopping mix too. While applying for their visas, some figure they may as well make purchases and re-sell them in Cuba to help pay for their trips.

“With the U.S. visa interviews, I think many more Cubans will come, and there will be more flights to Guyana,” said Alvarez, a native of Santiago, Cuba, who came to Georgetown to shop and has stayed on to earn extra cash from storekeepers.

Guyana made headlines in late March when U.S. officials said they’d transfer the processing of U.S. immigrant visas for Cubans from Colombia to this former British colony of some 750,000 residents. Many Cuban Americans in South Florida looked on maps to locate Guyana just east of Venezuela.

But Alvarez and thousands of islanders already were familiar with this multicultural nation and one of its chief attractions for Cubans: It doesn't require a visa to visit. In the past two years, Guyana has emerged as a prime destination for Cuban shoppers, joining the ranks of Panama, known for its free zone, and Miami, known for its Cuban Americans and many shopping options.

Cubans head home from the Georgetown airport loaded down with purchases made in Guyana. Doreen Hemlock Special to the Miami Herald

Officials estimate some 600 to 700 Cubans a week have been coming to shop in recent months. They turned to Guyana after Ecuador and other nations tightened visa requirements on Cubans in 2015 and after Honduras’ EasySky airline pioneered lower-cost Havana-Georgetown service in late 2016.

These days, flights arrive daily from Cuba on airlines that include Copa, Caribbean and Aruba. The typical shopper stays four to six days and spends $2,000 to $3,000 on a visit, including purchases, lodging, food and other basics. Local leaders estimate that pumps at least $85 million annually into the Guyanese economy, a significant sum for a nation whose government budget totals $1.3 billion this year.

Indeed, Cubans now rank among the top sources of non-Guyanese visitors to this Idaho-sized nation that has little tourism: “No other group buys like the Cubans in Guyana — none,” said Guyanese pilot Gerry Gouveia, whose Roraima travel group offers varied services for Cuba flights and passengers.

Cuban influx coming for U.S. visa processing

With the U.S. visa interviews underway, hundreds more Cubans are expected to come weekly to Guyana.

The United States had been issuing more than 800 U.S. immigrant visas to Cubans monthly before the Trump administration cut U.S. consular staff in Havana last year, citing alleged "attacks" on U.S. diplomats there and Cuba's inability to protect American personnel from the mysterious incidents that have caused hearing loss, dizziness, and symptoms similar to those caused by a concussion.

U.S. authorities initially switched the visa processing to the U.S. embassy in Bogotá, Colombia after it withdrew most of its Havana personnel. But Cubans faced hurdles there, because they needed a Colombian visa.

In choosing Guyana for the processing, the U.S. State Department said it weighed various factors "including the availability of flights, visa requirements, space to accommodate additional applicant files and availability of staff," as well as visa-free entry for Cubans. Some U.S. staff members in Guyana already speak Spanish, and “we intend to assign additional staff with appropriate language skills and experience to visa cases in Georgetown,” a spokesman said.

Interviews are held at the well-guarded U.S. embassy compound. Almost a block long, it's located near the Atlantic Ocean, Georgetown’s seawall and a new Marriott hotel. The yellow-and-white complex on Duke Street has British-style architecture, enclosed terraces and palm trees.

Visa visit: Neither quick nor cheap

For Cubans seeking the U.S. visas, the trip to Guyana is neither quick nor cheap. A Havana-Georgetown flight takes nearly four hours, but most airlines include a stop, making the journey longer. Flights often cost $800 to $1,200 round-trip, though some Cuban shoppers snag bargains under $700.

Visa applicants also require a medical check in Guyana that can run up to around $90 per adult, U.S. officials said.

The visa seekers typically need about two weeks in Georgetown for their interview and other processing. Lodging costs vary widely, but one private Cuban group in Guyana advertises rooms for families to share at $70 per night. Then, there’s transport, including the roughly 45-minute trip between the airport and downtown, plus visits to the U.S. embassy. Those costs run into hundreds of dollars.

Add it all up, and the trip can easily cost a visa applicant $2,000 to $3,000. Plus, many Cubans from the island are joined by family from the United States, who also spend thousands of dollars on their trips.

For Guyana, the visa processing portends an even bigger windfall, likely tens of millions of dollars more yearly. But there’s a bottleneck short-term: insufficient flights. With visa applicants reserving early, some Cuban shoppers can’t find seats into Georgetown for weeks to come.

Guyana Foreign Minister Carl Greenidge says Washington’s decision to handle the visa processing in his country is "up to the United States," but he’s clearly warm to Cuba and Cubans.

Guyana and Cuba have “very tight relations,” Greenidge said, referring to their shared histories of colonialism and U.S. intervention in their domestic politics to fight communism. Since Guyana gained independence from Britain in 1966, Cuba has been providing medical personnel and has educated Guyanese to become doctors. Cuba also recently helped start a center in Georgetown to train people to work with the disabled throughout the Caribbean Community, said Greenidge.

Of course, the Cuban influx has raised questions. Some Guyanese residents worry that Cubans are being underpaid at workplaces and exploited. They’d like the government to issue Cubans work permits.

“Even if they are being employed, they have to pay exorbitant rents,” said taxi driver Amir Rahim, who appreciates Cubans as Caribbean brethren. “For a one-bedroom, people are asking them $200 a month. It used to be half."

Some Cubans also have been robbed, now that word is out that the shoppers carry cash to pay for their purchases. From his taxi, Rahim recently saw assailants punch a Cuban woman in the face and try to run off with her bags. Police and a citizen intervened, “but the poor woman didn’t want to press charges,” so the men were released, Rahim said. “So much for justice."

Guyana also is close with the United States nowadays, said U.S. ambassador to Guyana Perry Holloway. That’s partly because of migration, much of it in the 1970s and 1980s during Guyana’s socialist period.

The U.S. Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana, began conducting interviews for Cubans seeking U.S. immigrant visas in early June 2018. Doreen Hemlock Special to the Miami Herald

Today, more Guyanese and their descendants live in New York, Florida and other U.S. locales than live in Guyana itself, or roughly 800,000, said Holloway. Guyanese in the United States, Canada and other countries abroad send hundreds of millions of dollars back yearly, accounting for nearly 25 percent of Guyana’s economy.

“Right now,” said Holloway, “Guyana is the most pro-U.S. country I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’ve lived all over the world. I even have lived in Colombia four times, and Colombia is often considered very pro-U.S."

Geopolitics is not top of mind, however, as Cuban shoppers choose among knock-offs of Nike T-shirts for $4 or fancy flip-flops for $2 per pair at shops on Regent Street in downtown Georgetown. They appreciate the help of fellow islanders, who often receive $70 to $100 per week from shopkeepers for their Spanish-language services. Cubans visiting Guyana can stay for months and renew their status.

"This traffic is actually creating small entrepreneurs out of Cubans in Guyana," said Guyanese entrepreneur Gouveia. "They’re putting up small hotels, restaurants and working in stores as translators.”