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Photographer Geandy Pavón Puts A Face to Cuban Refugees In Costa Rica

Artist Geandy Pavón integrated himself in a refugee camp in Costa Rica for Cubans to document the people searching for political asylum in the U.S.
Photo by Geandy Pavon
Photo by Geandy PavonGeandy Pavon

MIAMI -- For his guerrilla projection series 'Nemesis', photographer Geandy Pavón projected the face of political dissidents: Chinese artist Ai-Wei Wei on the surface of the Chinese consulate in New York City and the image of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died as a political prisoner in Cuba, on to the former Cuban mission in Washington D.C.

Most recently he projected the image of a boy playing with a gun onto the facade of the Toys 'R' Us in Time Square during rush hour. He also projected the faces of Harold Cepero and Oswaldo Paya, who were killed in a suspicious car accident, onto the Cuban mission in New York City.

In his latest series, he traveled to Costa Rica to document the most recent Cuban mass exodus. He spent seven days in the small northern town of La Cruz taking pictures of and getting to know the newest wave of Cuban refugees that havealready started arriving in the U.S.

Being able to camouflage himself among his countrymen, Geandy was able to capture the authentic fragility and hope he saw in the refugee camps. Moved by Costa Rican generosity and by Cuban ingenuity, he returned with a beautiful series of portraits and a deeper understanding of a reality that is getting lost in the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S.

I couldn’t wait to hear how documenting the lives of refugees in Costa Rica gave him a deeper understanding of the biggest Cuban refugee crisis since the restoration of diplomatic relations.

What surprised you the most upon your arrival?

The first thing I asked myself was, ‘Do I have anything in common with these Cubans?’ They behaved and spoke so differently from what I remembered when I left Cuba. Twenty years ago, you could tell who was a delinquent or a doctor by the way they spoke. And it’s not about judging them, it’s more about how Cubans used to be. There were certain behaviors that identified somebody as being educated or not.

In this crowd, you couldn’t tell because everybody spoke in variations of a strong Cuban slang, yet there were many professionals in these camps. It’s not that everybody was uneducated, it’s just that they’ve lived in an extremely aggressive atmosphere in a very aggressive society. In Cuba everybody is pushing everybody and I could tell that by the aggressiveness in the way they approached a situation or conversation that it’s become the new normal.

Photo by Geandy Pavon
Photo by Geandy PavonGeandy Pavon

Were people on edge?

I didn’t see one fight. People are desperate, but there hasn’t been any crime or violence. I didn’t see that at all and I asked. The refugees got along very well with the population. The Costa Rican people are the nicest people on earth. The Ticos in La Cruz, which is a small, poor town are providing food and shelter for entire Cuban families in their homes.

Apparently the Western Union has never seen so much money going into their office because of all the Cubans families in Miami sending money to their relatives in the camps. They open at 9 in the morning but at 6 a.m., you can hear the line starting to form just like in Cuba. Cubans have to eat, drink, smoke, they have to live so they’re spending the money sent to them and the town’s economy has improved because of it.

Photo by Geandy Pavon
Photo by Geandy PavonGeandy Pavon

Some of the refugees are renting rooms, a great part of them are living in the camp. There are also some people living on the streets and in the parks. I saw everything from bartenders to a man making butterflies and dragons out of wood to try and earn a living. You can hear the Cuban accent all over the town. Costa Ricans are very quiet and speak very mildly. The Cubans are so loud that you can here them everywhere. These Cubans have revolutionized that small town.

Why are these people leaving now?

They are leaving mostly because they are afraid of the abolishment of the Cuban Adjustment Act. They have no idea how our democratic government works. They think President Obama can wake up tomorrow and get rid of the Adjustment Act.

It’s important to note, Ecuador drafted a new constitution in which they state that no Latin American citizen needs a visa to visit Ecuador. Cubans took advantage of that and started selling everything they had, their houses their cars, anything of relative value to buy a ticket to fly to Ecuador. Once there, they cross from Ecuador to Colombia to Panama to Guatemala to Mexico, so that they can get into the US. And this is unique. It’s been happening for the past three years, so it’s a very particular situation.

What do they expect to do when they get to the U.S.?

They have a very infantile idea of the U.S. A very Hollywood like idea. Not all of them, but a lot of them. Some of them understand that it’s a county where you have to work very hard. Most of them are young professionals from the ages of 20 to 35 ... They were doctors, engineers and teachers.

Photo by Geandy Pavon
Photo by Geandy PavonGeandy Pavon

They’re aware that they’re being manipulated politically. In Cuba, by the regime and in Miami, by the extreme right. They feel the Cuban government is responsible for stopping them in Costa Rica. The Cuban government has asked the Ecuadorian (government) not to give any more Cubans visas.

On the Miami side, they don’t understand why the politicians of Cuban origin want to get rid of a law that gives Cubans a haven. They say these Cuban-American politicians like Marco Rubio have forgotten where they come from. They see them as kicking the ladder away because they agree with the Cuban Government on the fact that the Cuban Adjustment Act has to go.

And I understand them. Cuban American exiles cannot contend that these people shouldn't be granted political asylum because they're getting away from Cuba for economic reasons alone. Cuba is not a failed democracy like Mexico or Guatemala, it’s a totalitarian state. It doesn’t matter whether all of these people have the consciousness of being political refugees or economic ones. Why should we apply a standard to them we didn’t apply to ourselves? At the end of the day they are refugees because of the political situation regardless of how the contextualize their escape.

Photo by Geandy Pavon
Photo by Geandy PavonGeandy Pavon

After your work in these camps, how do you feel about the U.S. policy changes toward refugees?

I think we need to recognize that this exodus is happening after the U.S. policy shift and during the administration of a President that is being extremely civilized in his treatment of Cuba. The world always blames the U.S. for all of Cuba’s problems. But the truth is no matter what, people will not stop leaving the island because it’s become uninhabitable for Cubans. The government of Cuba prefers to speak to the U.S., their arch enemy, instead of speaking to their own people.

It’s nice for tourists, you have you daiquiri, smoke a cigar. But if you have to live in Cuba, as a Cuban, your dream is to leave because it’s a place where you have no hope and no future. The policy change is not making any impact on the Cuban reality of common people.

Currently Geandy Pavón's work can be seen at Ca' D'Oro Gallery in Chelsea NYC.

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