Thousands of Cuban migrants face uncertainty in Uruguay

Families waiting to apply for permanent residency say Uruguay’s new visa requirements are jeopardising their future.

Balbina Ponce Matias and her 33-year-old paraplegic son
Balbina Ponce Matias and her 33-year-old son left Cuba for Uruguay amid the largest exodus in decades from the Caribbean island [Sandra Hercegova/Al Jazeera]

Montevideo, Uruguay – Balbina Ponce Matias and her 33-year-old paraplegic son, for whom she is the sole caregiver, have lived their whole lives in Havana. But last November, they decided to leave the Cuban capital behind.

“I had no way to feed my son,” Ponce Matias told Al Jazeera.

“There is no medication, no diapers for disabled people; clothing and shoes are difficult to obtain. We would experience up to five hours of electricity cuts per day. You can’t find wheelchairs, you can’t find anything. So we said to ourselves, let’s seek a second chance at living.”

They are not alone. Amid Cuba’s largest exodus in decades, thousands of people driven out by the country’s severe economic crisis are seeking to start new lives abroad.

While many have headed north to the United States, a less conventional route has attracted some southwards towards Uruguay; Ponce Matias saw this as a safer path than attempting to enter the US via Mexico. But new visa requirements in the South American country are leaving thousands in migratory limbo, advocates say.

Applicants for asylum in Uruguay are provided with temporary identity cards that grant them access to the workforce and public services, such as education and healthcare, as they await a final decision on their status. Valid for two years, the cards can be renewed for an additional year up to two times.

Under Uruguayan law, at any time, asylum applicants can shift from seeking refugee status to pursuing a permanent residency visa, provided they have all the required documentation. But this past January, migrants and rights groups say, the Uruguayan government began implementing new regulations for permanent residency, requiring applicants to show passport entry and exit stamps from Brazil.

This is impossible for many migrants who entered the country through irregular routes.

According to Alberto Gianotti, founder of the Uruguayan non-profit Migrant Support Network, this new requirement has left about 10,000 Cubans in migratory limbo in the country.

“They entered and exited Brazil irregularly, entered Uruguay, possess documents due to their refugee application, and when they want to change their migratory status by renouncing refugee status, they are asked to fulfil a requirement they cannot meet,” Gianotti told Al Jazeera, noting that the requirement for passport stamps should be dropped.

“If these people cannot request permanent residency due to not having entry and exit stamps from Brazil, who are we going to expel?” he said. “Ten thousand to 12,000 migrants, vulnerable people? That would be detrimental to the country.”

Difficult journey

Ponce Matias and her son are in this predicament, lacking the necessary Brazil stamps after a journey to Uruguay that was fraught with challenges. They sold all their belongings in order to pay traffickers to take them to Uruguay, fearing that their visa would not be approved from Cuba.

“We had to practically give things away. I was selling things for the bare minimum, for as low as four Cuban pesos,” Ponce Matias said, noting the journey ultimately cost about $4,000.

Their trip of more than 6,000km (3,728 miles) included a 20-hour bus ride through the dense jungles of Guyana, en route to the Brazilian city of Boa Vista.

“It was terrible,” Ponce Matias said. “There were moments when we couldn’t proceed due to the challenging road conditions, and we had to disembark and re-embark, which was particularly difficult with [my son’s] wheelchair. Some traffickers abandoned Cubans in the middle of the jungle; people were sick, vomiting throughout the journey due to the rough roads.”

In Brazil, they were handed over to different traffickers, and over the course of a month, they were gradually taken by car and plane to the Brazil-Uruguay border. In the city of Rivera, Uruguay, they officially claimed asylum.

Alicia Schiavo, a border official in Rivera, told Al Jazeera that since January, close to 1,000 migrants per month have arrived at the crossing, the vast majority coming from Cuba. With many now in limbo, she believes the issue goes beyond immigration, requiring the intervention of the Uruguayan foreign ministry to find a comprehensive and legally binding solution.

“This problem is affecting many migrants, who are all facing similar realities,” Schiavo said. “Neglecting to address this issue could expose them once again to the dangers of human traffickers, leaving them with no alternative but to return the way they came.”

Contacted for comment, Uruguay’s National Directorate of Migration directed Al Jazeera’s questions to the foreign ministry, which did not respond by the time of publication.

Prolonged separation

Unable to seek permanent residency, some Cuban migrants in Uruguay are also struggling with prolonged separation from their families back home.

Yuritza Avalo Ramirez and Noel Hernandez Jauregui, who migrated to Rivera in September 2022, had to leave their three children – all under the age of 12 – behind in their hometown of Ciego de Avila, Cuba, with other family members.

“It’s really tough because they always ask me: ‘Mommy, when are you going to come pick us up?’ They always ask, and I have to tell them to wait a little bit,” Avalo Ramirez told Al Jazeera.

The couple said they had all the required documents to apply for permanent residency in Uruguay, except for the entry and exit stamps from Brazil. Avalo Ramirez said she didn’t understand why they were still in a state of limbo, having arrived before this requirement was implemented.

“We are waiting. In case this doesn’t get resolved, we will have to go to another country where we can regularise our situation and bring our children,” she said. “But I have faith that it will work out. We came to Uruguay to work and for a better future for our kids.”

Ponce Matias and her son also hope to make Uruguay their permanent home.

“We will endure here until the end,” she said. “I don’t think we can consider starting from zero elsewhere again.”

Source: Al Jazeera