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Cuban dissident, denied entry to U.S., waits in Mexican border town as cancer spreads

"This government has incentivized those who oppose socialism in Latin America to fight for their political ideas," said one of Ramon Arbolaez's attorneys. "We are turning our back on him."

A Cuban dissident is languishing in a Mexican border town as his cancer spreads, his attorneys say, asking for answers as to why the U.S. has denied him asylum.

The man, Ramón Arboláez, 45, had not been feeling well since he arrived in Mexico a year ago on his quest to reach the U.S. A doctor in Mexico diagnosed him with a cancerous tumor in his tongue that had spread to his jaw and lymph nodes. Unable to afford medical treatment, he has lost 35 pounds, and he can no longer chew and consumes only liquids.

Too weak to walk, he presented himself in a wheelchair at the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge to request asylum on July 17, but he was told by the Customs and Border Patrol officer to "return to Guatemala or Honduras and request asylum there," his wife, Yaneisy Santana Hurtado, who is with him in Reynosa, said by phone.

"We have gone through so much, and seeing him so worn out, without treatment, it's frustrating," Santana Hurtado said.

Ramon Arbolaez and his two youngest children, ages 12 and 6, in Reynosa, Mexico, in August 2020.Courtesy Yaneisy Santana Hurtado

As Arboláez's condition deteriorates, they applied for a B2 visitor's visa for medical treatment at the U.S. Consulate in Matamoros in late July. It was also denied, Santana Hurtado said.

Arboláez's case was reviewed by a team of doctors at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Miami's public hospital, who determined that he needs to be evaluated in the U.S. He has an appointment with a Miami doctor scheduled for Monday.

His attorneys say they have taken on his case voluntarily.

"This government has incentivized those who oppose socialism in Latin America to fight for their political ideas. Now that we have a person like Ramón Arboláez, we are turning our back on him," said Laura Jiménez, a lawyer with the office of Wilfredo Allan, who takes on many political asylum cases.

Jiménez called Arboláez a stateless person. "He is barred from re-entering Cuba. He is not a citizen anywhere and does not have rights anywhere. We have to set an example as a country that has always advocated for human rights," she said.

In Cuba, Arboláez was active with a group formed by one of the island's internationally known dissidents, Guillermo Fariñas.

Fariñas said in a phone interview that if Arboláez is not admitted in the U.S., it would be a "disaster" for Cuba's opposition.

He said that if Arboláez dies, Cuba's government would use it "to discredit and discourage the work of the opposition, saying the U.S. government barred him from entering the country and allowed him to die."

Arboláez and his wife are with three of their children, ages 21, 12 and 6. Their journey, which began four years ago, spans nine countries.

A long journey, then cancer

Ramón Arboláez began in November 2016 when he left Cuba for Trinidad and Tobago with his wife, four children and daughter-in-law.

In Cuba, Arboláez and his wife regularly participated in anti-government protests in the central province of Villa Clara.

"He was detained several times and tortured. In one occasion, he was stripped naked and left in an office with freezing temperatures," Santana Hurtado said by phone from Reynosa, where the family is staying. She said their children were singled out by teachers as being the kids of "gusanos," or worms.

Arboláez spoke only briefly during the interview because the cancer has muffled his speech.

Santana Hurtado said they felt pressure to leave after Arboláez was told that he would spend the rest of his life in prison if he did not abandon Cuba. They traveled to Trinidad and Tobago, like many other Cubans at the time, because the island's government was not requiring visas from them. Once there, they were unable to work, and their children could not attend school because of their immigration status. With few opportunities and resources, the family decided to continue to the U.S.

In March 2019, the family hopped on a speed boat and headed for Venezuela. Once there, they made their way to Colombia. They crossed the perilous Darien Gap jungle in Panama, where Arboláez's daughter-in-law gave birth under a tent with the help of a Cuban nurse who was also making the trip to Mexico.

Arboláez's son and daughter-in-law stayed in Panama with the baby, while the others made their way through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, finally arriving in Mexico in August 2019.

When Arboláez began feeling unwell, a doctor told him that he had a tumor on his tongue. A specialist recommended a biopsy and other tests that the family could not afford.

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Through the U.N. Refugee Agency, Arboláez got an appointment at a Mexican hospital in late May, but he was informed that the hospital was overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases and that no one could examine him.

Finally, in mid-July, he was diagnosed with the cancerous tumor and was told that the cancer had spread to his jaw and lymph nodes.

At the beginning of August, a supporter and friend in the U.S. filed an application for humanitarian parole with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Nothing has happened.

Jason Poblete, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who deals with international human rights law, sent a letter urging the acting USCIS director, Kenneth Cuccinelli, to grant Arboláez parole. Poblete insisted that Arboláez's admission "is consistent with President Trump's immigration and Cuba policy."

USCIS declined to comment "due to privacy concerns."

Jiménez, the Miami attorney, submitted an emergency request for expedited processing of Arboláez's humanitarian parole request last week.

Santana Hurtado said she is still confident "that great nation," referring to the U.S., will grant them asylum, but she admitted that she is disappointed.

Arboláez said: "The U.S. has given asylum to so many Cubans who have fled repression. Seeing us in these conditions is frustrating."

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