I too walk on flip-flops By Paul V. Montesino, PhD, MBA, ICCP.

A Point of View © 1996
I too walk on flip-flops
By Paul V. Montesino, PhD, MBA, ICCP.

The year was 1961; the months after April of that year. The Cuban Revolution had survived the ill-conceived and ill-executed Bay of Pigs invasion and those of us who had lost any hopes that the recently self-declared Socialist nature of the Cuban Government could be dislodged ran for the hills, Miami’s hills that is. If the old saying that “there must be gold in them there hills” had any truth to it, the proof was in the pudding, or the flan in our case.

Demand for visas to the United States and dollars to pay for airline tickets skyrocketed, while supply dwindled. Visas were impossible to obtain because diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana broke up on January 3, 1961.  The only way for a Cuban citizen to obtain an American visa was to travel from Cuba to a country with United States consulates and spend frustrating weeks, sometimes months, to obtain permission to enter the land of Lincoln. A friend of mine in Havana, now deceased, persuaded one relative in Panamá to get me a Panamanian visa to travel there before entering the United States, but I never used that option.

Some impatient Cubans who couldn’t wait became creatively daring, risking their lives and others’ hijacking passenger planes on domestic flights, stealing single engine agricultural aircraft and fishing motor or sailboats that allowed them to cover the ninety mile distance from Cuba to the Florida Keys without delay. That situation, of course, was untenable. The United States could not depend on an indefinite, unreliable, uncontrollable and unverifiable immigration system of family exodus and reunification of Cubans from Cuba, particularly in the state of Florida. Some measure of control had to be devised and exercised by Washington.

There were two coalescing reasons why it wasn’t hard to find a viable method to help Cubans who wanted to leave the island without country hopping or endangering lives.  The most important reason was the positive thinking in the minds of United States citizens and politicians at the time that Cubans needed help and had to get it soon. The other one was to resuscitate a tool already available in the US immigration books that was gathering dust and had been created during the Second World War in order to help Jews who wanted to come to the US but were unable to find a diplomatic American outpost able to do so: the visa waiver.

Obtaining a visa waiver is a difficult proposition, but not impossible. Traditional visas are normally stamped or glued into a passport at an issuing country’s consulate, in this case the United States, allowing the passport holder to travel and request admission at any U.S port of entry. The condition, however, is that the visa and the passport travel together. The visa waiver, as it name implies, waives that requirement. Once its holder arrives, the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection inspects the newcomers’ qualifications for acceptance without the previous review of a consul’s office and then enters a visa waiver note in the newcomer’s passport.

Usually a relief or refugee organization or a relative of the visa waiver holder already in the United States are the guarantors of the new immigrant’s reasons for such special treatment. Typically, visa waiver holders are required to return to their country of origin as soon as the conditions that forced them to get them in the first place cease or they could be deported. In order to avoid that possibility, visa waivers holders apply for permanent visas in the USA, the so-called green card, as soon as practical and start the road to full citizenship. I was one of those.

The visa waver was, of course, a complex tool. Visas are required for entering a country, not for leaving it. Those who used it to leave Cuba traveling to the US were really telling our government that we weren’t coming back unless the dictatorship ended. That was no minor clear and dangerous position to take against the communists. Those who had a real American visa could fake a plan to return to Cuba in a few months, but not the visa waiver beneficiaries. They were “gonzos” and other Cubans knew it as evidenced by the empty seats of Cuba bound flights. The ones to the US were full to the top, passengers or even flight attendants traveling often for the short hops in the restrooms. Waiting for flight documents and tickets at the airlines offices in Havana meant facing walls covered by government propaganda insulting the travelers for lack of patriotism. It was one more price to pay for our willingness to leave and be free.

United States Immigration clouded picture, circa 21st century.

It was obvious that the visa waiver as a Cuban immigration tool in the United States would eventually end. The Cuban population growth by birth of the recent years was a product of the new socialist society and had neither the idea nor the need to leave a country they couldn’t compare with anything else. In addition, the so-called “old guard” was getting older, tired or dead. Going into exile had lost its “mojo.”

Not for the rest of Central or South American nationals. South of the Border there were thousands of men and women who knew nothing of communism or visa waivers, but were experts in hunger, abuse, neglect and persecution, all ingredients to tempt them to move north and try to become Americans. There were at least two problems with that idea. The United States was not thinking positively about them the way they had thought about the Cubans, not even Cubans ourselves. The United States government had also become an austere judge who needed real and substantiated incidents of discrimination that the applicants couldn’t always provide or document successfully.

There was another bigger problem: most immigrants, whether today or last century’s, don’t look beyond our own cultural kind. The Irish, the Italians, the Jews, the whatever, look narrowly at our national ancestry. We identify with our problems, our strengths, not our relationship with all the groups that have migrated throughout history, our differences, not our commonality, why shouldn’t we? But we are really descendants of the big tree of humanity, not from one particular fruit. When I see the flipped-flopped feet of the crowds of women, men and children walking towards the freedom of our border they want I ask myself: would I have done the same to leave Cuba when I did it using a visa waiver? Would I have walked miles and miles in flip-flops or swam gallons and gallons over ocean water to reach the Promised Land?

That made me think: The next times you see me don’t look at my feet. If you happen to do so accidentally, ignore the quality of the fine leather of my shoes. Don’t judge me for wearing them. They are actually a disguise for the flip flops I am walking on, because I too walk on flip flops with them.

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