In the following interview, conducted Feb. 27, 2012, in Havana, Olga Salanueva recounts some of her experiences as an immigrant worker in the United States, where she lived and worked for four years before being deported back to her native Cuba. Her story is one that millions of workers in the United States, immigrant and native-born, will identify with.
Salanueva’s husband, René González, is one of five Cuban revolutionaries framed up by the U.S. government and fighting for their freedom. Incarcerated for more than 13 years, González was transferred in October 2011 from federal prison to “supervised release.” He is ordered to remain in the United States under the control of the federal courts’ probation office until October 2014.
During the 1990s René González, along with Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, and Fernando González, accepted assignments to gather information on the activities of Cuban American counterrevolutionary groups operating in South Florida and report to the Cuban government. These paramilitary outfits, organizing on U.S. soil with virtual impunity, have a long record of carrying out bombings, assassinations, and other deadly attacks against targets in Cuba, as well as against those in the United States and Puerto Rico who oppose Washington’s efforts to destroy the Cuban Revolution.
González was born in Chicago in 1956 to Cuban parents who were immigrant workers escaping the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista at the time. After the revolution his parents returned to Cuba, where González was raised. An experienced pilot and flight instructor, in December 1990 he flew a “stolen” crop duster from Havana to Key West, Fla., where he was welcomed by U.S. authorities and other opponents of the revolution as a “Cuban defector.” He joined the counterrevolutionary Brothers to the Rescue operation when it was formed the following year.
Brothers to the Rescue masqueraded as a “humanitarian” campaign to help Cubans who, in response to the very difficult economic conditions on the island at that time, were seeking to reach the United States by crossing the Florida Straits on flimsy rafts or boats. González collected intelligence on the group’s plans for actions against Cuba, which included, among other things, increasingly provocative flights into Cuban airspace and dropping leaflets over Havana.
In February 1996, after repeated warnings to Brothers to the Rescue to cease and desist, as well as repeated attempts to get Washington to stop the overflights, the Cuban air force shot down two of the group’s planes that violated Cuba’s airspace.
In September 1998, FBI agents arrested the five revolutionaries and others who were monitoring these counterrevolutionary outfits. U.S. authorities labeled them the “Wasp Network.” The five were framed up and convicted on a variety of charges, including failure to register as a foreign agent, conspiracy to commit espionage, possession of false identity documents, and conspiracy to commit murder. They were given sentences of up to double life plus 15 years in prison.
René González, charged with failure to register as an agent of a foreign government and conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent, was sentenced to 15 years plus three years of “supervised release.”
In August 2000, as the case of the Cuban Five was about to go to trial, federal cops arrested Salanueva, threatening to revoke her permanent resident status and deport her. It was a clear attempt to coerce González into testifying against his four comrades. Unable to break him, U.S. officials made good on their threat and deported Salanueva.
Since her deportation, Washington has denied each and every application by Salanueva for a visa to see her husband, accusing her variously of being a threat to U.S. “national security,” a Cuban intelligence agent, or even someone tied to “terrorism.” In 2008 U.S. officials declared her “permanently ineligible” for a visa. Salanueva lives in Havana with their two daughters, Irmita, 28, and Ivette, 14.
In April 2012, federal judge Joan Lenard in Miami allowed González to return to Cuba for two weeks to visit his brother Roberto, who had cancer and died June 22. It was the first time the couple had seen each other in nearly 12 years.
Together with the wives, mothers, sisters, children, and other relatives of the five imprisoned revolutionaries, Olga Salanueva has been a tireless campaigner in the international fight to free the men, speaking on platforms across Cuba and around the globe.
The interview was conducted by Mary-Alice Waters, Róger Calero, and Martín Koppel. The translation is by the Militant.
Mary-Alice Waters: Olga, let’s start by you telling us when you first arrived in the United States, and under what conditions.
Olga Salanueva: I arrived on Dec. 28, 1996. René is a U.S. citizen because he was born there, so he was able to sponsor me and our daughter Irmita to gain legal residence.
René had left for the United States in 1990. After six long years of separation, we were happy our family was reunited and we could resume our plans, including having another child. Along with that happiness, however, I began a difficult, unforgettable stage in my life.
As with many immigrants, before I could enter the United States René had to sign an affidavit saying he would take responsibility for my expenses, that I wouldn’t become a “burden to society.”
It’s ironic, but when you are sponsored by a U.S. citizen and immigrate to the United States through legal channels, you don’t get the help that Cubans who arrive on a motorboat receive under the so-called Cuban Adjustment Act.*
If you come on a small boat with no documents, the U.S. government provides you job offers, health coverage for a year, and money to live on. That’s only for Cubans, of course.
I knew no English and was on my own to find a job. We lived in Kendall, in southwest Miami. I didn’t have much luck at first. The employment office told me I wasn’t qualified. That I didn’t know the language. That all they had were jobs for men—construction jobs and such.
Selling burial plots in MiamiWaters: What did you study in Cuba?
Salanueva: I have a degree in industrial engineering, and I also studied accounting. But in the United States they don’t recognize your degree. You’re required to get a certificate of equivalency, for which you first have to learn English. You virtually have to start all over. I did take an accounting course and a computer science class to improve my chances.
My first job was in a nursing home, caring for the elderly residents who needed help. It was a private business, of course. I lasted three days. When René saw the conditions there—the dirty clothes, urine-soaked sheets, and long hours I worked—he said, “Let’s get you out of there.”
Then I saw an ad for a telemarketing job with a funeral home and got hired. They’d give us a list of telephone numbers and we’d call them, one by one, to sell funeral services: wakes, cremations, burials, burial plots.
I learned that in the United States, in what they call a “democracy,” you must have money—or get it any way you can—so at the end of your life your remains can have a final resting place, without it becoming an added burden on your family.
When we made the phone calls, we were supposed to convince people to set an appointment for a salesperson to visit them. You had to get a certain number of appointments or they’d fire you.
It was a part-time job. We had no rights, no health insurance, and no vacations.
Most of the workers were Latinos. Some of the young women who worked with me had come from Cuba on rafts. Several told me they had made a mistake and were sorry they had left Cuba.
Martín Koppel: You said you had no health insurance. How did that affect you?
Salanueva: After a year or so, I was pregnant with Ivette. As we had no insurance, we had to pay cash up front for all the doctor’s visits.
I remembered my first pregnancy in Cuba, where under the maternity law I had the right to paid maternity leave for one year.
I began to have some health problems that often occur with pregnancy—constipation and other symptoms. The doctors paid no attention. It was normal, they told me: I should drink juice. Seven and a half months into the pregnancy, I wound up with hemorrhoids in which blood clots had formed and circulation was blocked. It was extremely painful.
René went with me to the Kendall hospital. I got the kind of treatment you often receive in the U.S. when you go to an emergency room but don’t have insurance. There I was with my big belly. And in such pain that I couldn’t even sit.
As soon as we walked in the door they called René over: “Your credit card, please.” They took $300, and told us to have a seat. But I couldn’t sit. I paced, waiting for two and a half hours. If there had been others in the waiting room I would have understood. But there was no one. Then they sent me to gastroenterology. Once again it was, “Show me your Social Security card,” “What’s your income?” “What are your expenses?” I was moaning in pain, while they were drawing up the bills.
Finally I was seen by a nurse, not a doctor. He gave me an ointment and some tranquilizers. I went home, furious, desperate.
Then René remembered he had given flying lessons to a proctologist who owned a clinic. They had become friends. When René called him, the doctor said what they had done to me was criminal. The clots needed to be cut out right away. When René told him we didn’t have insurance, he said, “Bring her here.”
The clinic had already closed, but he said, “I’ll try to do something.” I lay on a stretcher as he operated on me.
I will never forget that experience. People say there are good hospitals in the United States, and it’s true, they have tremendous technology. But if you don’t have money, you don’t have access to it.
Medical personnel try to help you. But most hospitals are businesses. They are supposed to generate profits, and the health care workers are employees. They will get fired if they break the rules. It’s the whole system that’s a problem.
When Ivette was bornThe same thing happened when Ivette was born, in April 1998. René was away at the time, taking a course in Texas. I had just dropped him off at the airport when the labor pains started.
I went to the hospital accompanied by a friend from work. Once again it was the same ordeal: “Take a seat.” “Give me all your information.” After a while they examined me and said, “You’re not ready to give birth yet. Go home.” So I went back home, where I was alone with Irmita, who was 14. I remember spending the entire night in labor.
The next morning, with my friend, we returned to the hospital. I gave birth around 10:30 p.m. that night. I was alone practically the entire time, with monitors attached all over me. The doctor was taking care of three deliveries at once. A nurse would come to see me once an hour, examine me without a word, then leave. It was my co-workers who came to be with me, young immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Cuba. They practically delivered me.
I was 38 years old. I had high blood pressure. I was in labor for more than 24 hours. When Ivette was finally born the umbilical cord was wrapped twice around her neck. I had all the indications that an emergency caesarian section was required. But they left me there until I gave birth. It was a pure miracle we came through it.
Ivette was placed in intensive care as soon as she was born because she had oxygen deprivation.
I was put in the postnatal ward, alone. They gave me a bedpan and had me with an IV in one arm and a blood-pressure monitor on the other. I was like that for hours, unable to move. Finally a nurse came and helped me get up to go to the bathroom and bathe.
Contrast with CubaThis was in Jackson Memorial Hospital. It’s the only public hospital in Miami-Dade County, but it has many resources and is very well equipped. I thought: Wow, if we were in Cuba and had all this equipment, the things we could do, with our doctors and the training they have! And that includes the way doctors, nurses, and other health care workers are trained to care for you as a human being. That’s why the U.S. government doesn’t want Cuba to advance, that’s why they’ve blockaded us.
I felt much better here in Cuba, where I gave birth to Irmita in the Ramón González Coro Maternity Hospital in Havana. It’s a small hospital, with the equipment we can afford, but with incredible professional standards and ethical attitudes. I remember giving birth surrounded by so much love, everyone helping me.
Róger Calero: What happened after Ivette was born?
Salanueva: Since she was born in the U.S., Ivette was eligible for Medicaid, and I took her to the clinic every month. When she was a little more than three months old, the doctors told us she had a heart murmur, that it could be serious. That it would have to be followed closely. Each time I took her for a checkup they said she needed a cardiac sonogram. Then, a few months later, they told me Ivette would need heart surgery; they would recommend a specialist.
I was stunned. What a situation! By then René had been arrested. I had lost the house because I couldn’t pay the mortgage, and was living in a small apartment. I didn’t have a cent. The doctors told me not to worry, that the operation would be covered by Medicaid.
René’s grandmother Teté had begun taking care of Ivette after René was arrested. She was a U.S. citizen and lived in Sarasota, Fla., four hours northwest of Miami. Teté said, “Look, there’s a good children’s hospital here and I’m going to take Ivette to be checked by a doctor there.”
That cardiologist turned out to be a very fine person. He adored Ivette, and they did all kinds of tests on her. Then one day Teté called me with the news. She’d just heard from the doctor.
He told her, “I’ll start with the bad news: I’m not going to be able to see this pretty little girl anymore. The good news is: she’s fine. She has no heart problem.”
The other doctors had lied. It was a fraud. What they wanted was to pocket the Medicaid money.
I asked myself a thousand times: Can this be true? As someone who grew up in Cuba, so different from capitalist society, I couldn’t conceive of such evil.
After I was deported and got Ivette back, the first thing I did was to take her to a cardiologist because I still had doubts in my mind. The doctors in Havana confirmed there was nothing wrong with her.
Cuba is a country with limited resources that faces a U.S. economic blockade. We may face a shortage of a particular medicine. Doctors may have to substitute one for another, or a patient may remain seriously ill until the medicine arrives.
But the problem is never a lack of medical attention or government indifference. Everything possible is done to ensure people’s well-being.
The second half of the interview will appear in next week’s issue.