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Vol. 76/No. 27      July 23, 2012

‘My years in US taught
me about capitalism’
‘And made me value even more the gains
of the Cuban Revolution,’ says Olga Salanueva
(feature article)

The following is the second half of an interview with Olga Salanueva on her experiences as an immigrant worker in the United States, where she lived and worked for four years before being deported back to Cuba. Salanueva’s husband, René González, is one of the five Cuban revolutionaries who were framed up and imprisoned by the U.S. government and are fighting for their freedom. (See box on this page.)

In the first part, published in last week’s issue, Salanueva told how she arrived in Miami in 1996 and was granted permanent residence status. She described her first jobs—at a nursing home and then doing telemarketing for a funeral home—and her firsthand experiences with the health care system under U.S. capitalism.

The interview was conducted Feb. 27, 2012, in Havana by Mary-Alice Waters, Martín Koppel, and Róger Calero. The translation is by the Militant


MARY-ALICE WATERS: What were your other jobs like?

OLGA SALANUEVA: By the time René was arrested in September 1998, I wasn’t selling burial plots and cremation services anymore. When Ivette was born four months earlier I had to miss a month of work, and the funeral home fired me. There was no maternity leave at that company.

First I got another telemarketing job selling mortgages. Then a telemarketing job selling English-language learning programs to Spanish-speaking immigrants.

I worked from noon until after 11 p.m., Monday through Friday. We received a basic wage plus a sales commission.

WATERS: You were working from home?

SALANUEVA: I worked at an office during the week. On Saturdays I took work home with me.

The company put inserts promoting the language program in the giveaway Spanish-language newspapers. If you mailed the card back, they sent you a free “dictionary.” We called people who returned the cards and explained that they weren’t going to learn English with just a dictionary. That they needed a program with teachers and books. That they were very lucky to have contacted this English-language program, blah, blah, blah. And we’d try to sell it to them.

The dictionary was very small, just a pamphlet. When I sent it to René in prison, he told me, “It’s the first time in my life I’ve seen a dictionary in which I know all the words. It’s worthless. That’s why it’s free.”

The owners of the company taught you how to sell, how to manipulate potential buyers until they fell for it. They told you what words and tone of voice to use and not to use.

We received a commission after the customer made the first payment. If the customer missed a payment, they’d take back your commission. You had to call the customer and convince them to make a payment or you’d lose your commission.

We had to ask people questions: their name, address, where they were from. We were told that by knowing what country someone was from, you could tell if you were likely to sell to them or not.

Learned about workers’ lives

I ended up learning a lot about people’s lives. For example, I learned how immigrants from Central America and Mexico had crossed the border. How they lived together crowded into small apartments in the city. What their dreams were, their problems, why they had immigrated—it was always to help their families, to send a little money back home.

The complete program included audiotapes, videos, and a tape recorder. The audiotapes were the least expensive. When I’d hear the things people told me about their situation, I’d say, “Look, buy just the audiotapes—you really won’t have time to watch the videos.”

I told myself: If they catch me saying this, they’re going to fire me! But it was criminal to convince people who earn minimum wage to buy this program. It was worthless—no one learned English with it.

I hated the telemarketing jobs. That whole experience is why, to this day, I dislike telephones and don’t like to call people.

Most of the people we called were agricultural workers. I’ll never forget one of the responses. Among the questions I had to ask was, “Do you work? What’s your position?”

And this woman answered, “What’s my position? Agachada.” Bent over. She picked strawberries, stooped over all day. That’s what she thought I was asking!

Sometimes we asked, “Have you attended school?” I remember the answers were usually: “No, but I did study a little.” “My brothers never got the chance, but I did.” “I got to third grade.” And so on.

I learned that American businessmen go to Mexico and recruit laborers for six-month contracts to work in agriculture. They are put in a camp they can’t leave. Sometimes they aren’t paid in cash but in tokens that they have to use in the store owned by the boss. This is something I remember from the history of the sugar mills in Cuba before the revolution. But in this day and age!

I asked one of them, “How did you find out about the English program?”

He said, “The bosses took me to the market one day, and I happened to see an ad in a newspaper. I need to learn English.” He asked, “What do you think I should do?”

I couldn’t help it. I said what I really thought. “If you want my advice, leave that place—escape. It’s better to be undocumented than a slave.”

Some undocumented workers had false papers, of course. We would say we just wanted to sell them a language program, and they could use whatever Social Security number they had to establish a credit account. That was one of the hooks—buying the program would help them establish a credit history.

When René and the others were arrested, the U.S. government made a big issue about some of them having false identification documents. They added several years to their prison sentences for having false documents.*

But there are millions of people in the U.S. with false ID. They need undocumented Latinos to work in the U.S. They do hard physical labor, working long hours at very low wages. And when, like now, they don’t need so many due to the economic situation, they just deport people on this or that pretext.

Arrested by ‘la migra’

WATERS: What happened after René was arrested?

SALANUEVA: René was taken to the Miami Federal Detention Center, where they kept him in the “hole”—in solitary confinement—for 17 months.

At first he was not allowed to see the two girls. Other inmates in solitary would be taken down to the visiting room when their children came to see them. But not René. They allowed the first visit only after nine months, when Ivette was already 13 months old.

In February 2000 they moved René out of the hole, and then I was able to visit him once a week for an hour, until August 13 of that year. On that visit—it was René’s birthday—he told me about a letter the district attorney had asked him to sign. If he entered a guilty plea and agreed to testify for the prosecution, he wouldn’t go to trial and would get a shorter sentence. The letter reminded him that I had permanent resident status and that they could revoke it. René refused to sign, of course.

Three days later, on August 16, I was arrested. They did it to put pressure on him before the trial.

Two agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service and one from the FBI came to the house. They confiscated my green card and took me to immigration, where they took my fingerprints and photographs. Then they put me in a car to take me to jail.

RÓGER CALERO: Were you in handcuffs?

SALANUEVA: Oh yes. A policewoman escorted me in the car. Her job was to play soft cop. She knew the hard times I’d gone through the past two years, she said. “A woman living alone, who just had a baby and has an older child. Has it been difficult for you?” Imagine! Of course, they knew everything.

Then the policewoman said, “You know, these things can be worked out, the charges can be reduced. But your husband hasn’t been willing to cooperate.”

She asked if I wanted to see René. I knew they were trying to manipulate me. But, I thought, this is my chance. “Yes, I want to see him,” I said.

First they took me to the state prison in Fort Lauderdale, 30 miles up the coast. There they put me in a filthy, stained prison uniform and locked me in a cell. Fifteen minutes later they took me out of the cell, put me in a car, and took me back down to Miami, to the Federal Detention Center where René was. They just wanted me to see what it was going to be like in jail.

They dressed me in that orange prison uniform to try to shake up René. They brought him into a room and sat us down facing each other, with all the FBI agents there. When I saw him I was overcome by emotion, because I felt it was going to be the last time I’d see him for a long time. It turned out to be true.

René hugged me and said, “You look good in orange.”

When I told him I had been arrested by immigration agents, he said, “That means they will probably deport you to carry out the threat in the letter they handed me. We must be prepared for that.”

WATERS: How long were you in the Fort Lauderdale prison?

SALANUEVA: Three months. It’s a state prison, but they rent two cells to the federal government to hold immigrants and people on their way to federal court. They use it as a punishment facility for inmates from Krome, the immigration detention center in Miami.

My cell had no windows. The lights were on 24 hours a day, and a camera was taping you. The cell had four cots, a table, a toilet, a wash basin, and a shower with a curtain.

I shared the cell with Cuban women, a woman from Colombia, and women from Haiti, with whom I got along very well.

During these three months, René and I wrote to each other. I received his letters from prison. But none of my letters were delivered to him.

CALERO: What about the response of your coworkers? Didn’t one of them help you and René communicate with each other while you were in jail?

SALANUEVA: Yes, that was Marina. She was from Peru, a hard worker. We respected each other. She was very religious; she knew I wasn’t a believer. When I was arrested she visited me in jail. She told me to be calm and gave me a Bible, with a beautiful dedication, which I still have.

On one visit she asked if I had spoken with René. I explained that you’re not allowed to make calls from one prison to another.

Now, at the telemarketing company they gave us tape recorders to use during sales calls. We would ask the customer to say his name, give us some information, and state that he agreed to the terms of the contract.

Marina said, “Remember, I have a recorder at home. Let’s have René call me. I’ll accept the call and record René’s message for you. Then you call me, I’ll record you, and when René calls me again I’ll play the recorder so he can hear your message. When you call again, you’ll be able to listen to René’s message.”

Deported to Cuba

It turned out to be farewell messages to each other, because by then I was about to be deported.

They deported me on Nov. 22, 2000, just five days before the trial of the five began.

WATERS: On what basis did the U.S. government deport you?

SALANUEVA: In immigration court, no evidence was presented that implicated me in anything. The prosecutors said I knew about my husband’s activity. The judge asked them to show proof that I belonged to this group of spies that had been arrested or that I knew what they were doing.

“The trial hasn’t started yet,” the prosecutor said. “I can only say she’s part of the group, and her daughters are too.”

The judge asked, “The daughters? How old are they?”

“Yes, yes, the daughters. One is 14 years old and the other is 2.”

“But how can you say the daughters knew?”

“OK, not now, but in the future they could know,” said the prosecutor.

It was hysterical. From that time on, we called Ivette the “baby spy.”

The judge said, “Well, although I see no evidence, I have the authority, on the basis of suspicion, to revoke her residency and deport her.” And that’s what he did.

After the deportation hearing I asked to see René. They said no. Irmita was already in Cuba; she had come here on vacation before my arrest. I asked immigration to bring Ivette to the airport, so I could take her to Cuba with me. They said no, Ivette was a U.S. citizen, and she was not subject to deportation.

“And how is she going to stay in the U.S. if I am going to be deported and René is in prison?” I asked.

They replied that we would have to find a relative to travel with Ivette and give that relative a power of attorney. As it happened, René’s mother, Irma [Sehwerert], had been granted a visa to visit René. So Ivette returned to Cuba with Irma the day after I was deported.

‘Many in Cuba need to hear this’

MARTÍN KOPPEL: I understand that Irmita got support from some of her friends at school.

SALANUEVA: Yes, that was at the end of the trial. Irmita was back living in Cuba by then, and she traveled to Miami to attend the sentencing in December 2001.

Irmita’s friends saw her in the newspapers and on television. Some of them defied all the hostile propaganda and went to the courtroom to support her.

I was in the United States for four years. In that brief time I learned what it meant to live and work in that country as just one more worker. These were my experiences, but there are millions of similar stories by immigrants in the United States.

In Cuba many people need to hear these things, both those of my generation—I was born in 1959—and today’s youth. These are things that in Cuba you only read about in books or hear from your grandparents. You might think it’s part of the past. That today capitalism isn’t like that. But practical experiences like the ones I went through teach you more about life under capitalism than anything you can read. They show you why a revolution was necessary in Cuba.

Having gone through these experiences, I value even more all that we’ve achieved in our country. Everything we cannot allow them to take away from us. The gains we can never give up. That’s what the five are defending; it’s why they keep them in jail. And it’s why we will never stop fighting to free them.

* On top of various “conspiracy” and other charges against the five Cuban revolutionaries, the three who are not U.S. citizens—Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, and Fernando González—were charged with having false ID documents. Conviction on those counts added five or more years to their sentences.
Related articles:
Who are the Cuban Five?
Where to write to Gerardo, Ramón, Antonio and Fernando
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