The Cuban ‘tourists’ trapped in Russia

By Fernando Salcines

Moscow,  May 19 (efe-epa).- They arrive from Cuba as ‘tourists’ but they haven’t come to visit Red Square, but rather to buy products to sell back in the island nation, to try to make it into the European Union or stay and make a living in Russia.

But the spread of Covid-19 has now left many of these people stranded in limbo.

“Give a Cuban a job, he’ll do what he has to do, but they have to pay us,” Yuvani Marquetti Elías, originally from the town of Alquizar, tells Efe from his house on the outskirts of Moscow.

Every year, around 25,000 Cubans come to Russia, where they can stay for three months visa-free, but only 25 percent of them register with immigration services, according to the Russian statistics office (EMISS).

Russia became one of the principal non-Spanish speaking destinations for thousands of Cubans looking for a better future since 2013, when residents of the Caribbean nation no longer needed authorization to travel abroad.

They soon discovered Moscow’s wholesale markets, dominated by Chinese and Central Asian merchants, whey they bought clothes and shoes to bring back and sell in Cuba, often at a lower price than offered by state-run outlets.

Others come looking for work, mainly in construction, either on their own initiative or attracted by intermediaries offering high incomes and a new life of opportunity. Those dreams are often shattered.

Now the coronavirus pandemic has stranded Cubans in Russia as authorities close down land borders and airspace amid a lockdown to stem the spread of Covid-19.

More than 100 Cubans working in the black market, popularly known as “mules” in their home country, have been cut adrift in Moscow by the lockdown, a city they barely know. They face a huge language barrier.

For almost two months, these Cubans have had no income to feed themselves or pay rent. There is no sign of when they will be able to return home.

“People who travel to Russia to buy products for Cuba usually come for seven days, because a longer visit doesn’t make economic sense,” Pedro Luis García, a Cuban who has lived in the Russian capital for eight years and helps other Cubans with legal advice and food aid, tells Efe.

He says there are some apartments where more than 20 people share three or four bedrooms and the corridors are stacked with merchandise.

But they are not the only Cubans in Russia facing difficulties at the moment.

Those who arrived in Russia looking to start life from scratch have also become trapped in the lockdown.

“It’s not easy,” Yadira Mendoza, originally from Santa Clara, says.

Covid-19 has kept her confined to her apartment in a modular building in the south of Moscow, where she shares the space with her husband, brothers and three others.

They live in cramped conditions split between two bedrooms with just the minimum to get by. They are also here without documentation.

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