Free as a Jailbird in Havana

When ex-con Mario Mora was deported to Cuba, he swapped one prison for another

In the grand scheme of things, it could be worse. Mario Mora Medina could still be in a dank jail cell in St. Martin Parish, Louisiana, stranded with dozens of other Cubans in a legal limbo -- they had finished prison sentences for various crimes but remained in custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service because they were considered deportable. The United States had no extradition treaty with Cuba, however, so they remained locked up. Mora had been in INS custody for five years. He and others hoped for a miracle that might spring them from jail and send them back to Cuba for some maduros and a little rice and beans.

Then again, it could be better. What began as an emotional jail uprising in December 1999, and led to him and five others being sent back to Cuba, has deteriorated into a life of hustling on the streets of Havana. The island has become a new prison, but Mora is hardly poised to start another revolt.

In a way, Mora is a perfect Cuban hustler. He exchanges hellos in flawless English with the foreigners who meander around central Havana. In a self-effacing, almost defensive manner he offers them chicas, a restaurant, or a casa particular, private homes with rental rooms for visitors. His specialty is locally made cigars, especially Cohibas. For a time he was an interpreter at one of the cigar factories. "I can get you habanas for cheap, and with the seal," he beseeches the pale-skinned Europeans strolling along the seaside Malecón.

Mora is a skeleton of what he was when Cuban prisoners stormed the control room of the jail in the tiny southern Louisiana town of St. Martinville. He's lost 40 pounds since arriving in Cuba. Skin seems to hang from his full frame; his weathered face makes him look older than his 36 years. "I don't need no Jenny Craig," he says in his scratchy baritone. "I got the Fidel Castro diet."

The jail uprising that sent him to Cuba was Mora's defining moment. It's the first thing he talks about when you meet him. He recounts every detail: the abuse he claims led to the revolt; the fear on the guards' faces after the prisoners had overpowered them; negotiating on the phone with the FBI; watching a fellow inmate having sex with a female prisoner on a security monitor; the laser spots on his shirt from the SWAT team's rifles; the helicopters hovering above. But for Mora it was never violent. He wasn't part of the scheme, he claims, only the solution. Mora and a fellow prisoner gave up after five days and released several hostages. Two days later the rest of the prisoners did the same.

Mora and five others were sent to Cuba via a special arrangement between the Clinton administration and the Castro government. Mora was petrified. "Cuba scared the shit out of me," he says. "I felt like I was in Russia." But he and the others were treated as heroes. Several high-ranking military officers greeted them when they landed. "You stepped on the yanquis," one of the officers proudly told the group.

The Cubans took them to what Mora can only describe as "a government building" in Havana. For the next 45 days authorities subjected them to a battery of medical and psychological exams. Between testing the men slept in dorm rooms, ate three square meals a day, and watched satellite television. "They treated us well," Mora recounts. "I have no complaints."

Mora was different from the other deportees -- more American than Cuban. He'd come to Miami with his mother when he was two years old in the early Seventies, attended Shenandoah elementary and middle schools, then Miami High. After two of his brothers arrived during the Mariel boatlift, the three began selling drugs. Mora moved cocaine and heroin up and down the East Coast until he was arrested while trying to steal a stash of coke from a Miami warehouse. Other arrests followed until his rap sheet -- which included burglary, sexual assault, escape from custody, and drug sales -- landed him in prison, then into INS custody in a Louisiana jail.

At the Cuban government building Mora's new guards explained to him the ways of the island. "They told me not get involved with drugs or guns," he recalls. "They said that things were different in Cuba." After the final medical testing, the Cuban government took the men to homes of their relatives, where they were left to fend for themselves. Mora stayed for a few weeks with his brother, his brother's girlfriend, and their two kids in a house near the airport before renting his own apartment for $30 a month. Then the never-ending scramble for work began. "I figured with my English I would get a job here, so I went to the fancy hotels," he remembers. "And they'd ask, 'Where did you go to school?' Miami. 'Oh, then don't call us, we'll call you.'"

A few rejections later and Mora was using his English on tourists. "I stay away from the hard-time shit, but I hustle to survive," Mora says squarely when you ask him what he does for a living. "Cigars are the major market here, and that's what I stay with. No one gets hurt and I make a few bucks."

Mora's strategy: "I just sit at the Malecón, and when they walk by I say, 'Are you here on vacation?' They notice my accent and we start talking. I tell them that I [smuggled] people to the U.S. I use that as a pitch."

Doesn't that scare them?

"Not as much as if I told them I was involved in a prison riot."

The police, however, have never stopped watching Mora. "When it comes to tourism here, it's a serious thing," he says. "Just for walking down the streets with a tourist or a foreigner, you can get stopped [by the police] and asked a million questions. And if the party you're with acts like they don't know you or acts as if they've been bothered, you're going to spend a few nights in jail. I've learned a lot in Cuba. I've learned that there are guidelines. And when they say no, it's no."

As a condition of being allowed to leave the U.S., Mora had to agree that he would never return, so he's settled into Cuban living. He has three children -- two-year-old twin boys and an eight-month-old girl -- with a Cuban woman who is no longer his girlfriend. "My life has been harder than ever. But I'm happy to be free and next to my twins," he says. "If I could go back to [the U.S.], I would. I love the people, but I hate the way the [U.S.] government does things. How in the hell can you be an adopted son of America from the time you're two, then they kick you out? That's not right. I'm American."

In the meantime Mora keeps hustling and hoping for another miracle that will take him to another English-speaking country. Maybe Canada. "I just want to go somewhere else and start a new life and just be me: Mario, a new me. I don't want to be a criminal."

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