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‘I just never planned to be an immigrant’: A dissident Cuban rapper transitions to America

The Cuban rapper Ángel Yunier, known as “El Crítico,” became famous for his rap lyrics criticizing the Castro regime. He drew crowds in the town of Bayamo in eastern Cuba with his raps, which both alarmed and excited Cubans not used to hearing open criticism of the government. He was arrested and imprisoned in 2013, where he remained until January 2015, when he was released with 52 other political prisoners as a result of the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States.

In March, he met with President Barack Obama as a civil society representative when he visited Havana. Yunier arrived three months ago in Miami as a political refugee.
Now he’s settled in Doral with his wife and son, figuring out this new life. He’s put his rapping on hold while he gets used to his new job in a meatpacking warehouse. We talked with him about activism and art now that he has left Cuba behind and started a new path.

Why did you decide to go into exile?

I decided to leave Cuba because I felt discriminated by the society and isolated after I left prison.They (the political police) disappeared me for two years, and even though I had people who supported my activism, things were different once I left. The people were scared to be related to me.
I also began to meditate about the risk I was submitting my children to since I was using my own home as a political space. Everyone saw the “Down with the Dictatorship” poster I had in my own home.

The acts of repudiation and repression continued until a rock hit me in the face while I was in my bedroom. I decided to ask for political asylum more for my children than for me. I didn’t want to continue exposing them to what I did when I left as a prisoner and left them alone — one who was only a few months old and the other three years old.

What expectations did you have of Miami and how has the reception been?

I didn’t have any expectations about Miami, I never even thought about coming here. What I knew about Miami was that there were a lot of Cubans, and that many of them supported their families [in Cuba] and had liberty to support our struggle in Cuba and to express themselves liberally. It’s the only idea I had about Miami, in addition to the fact that people earn a better salary here.

When I arrived here, that was what I found: liberty and expression, a salary that was in agreement with my capabilities. In this country, you are a slave to yourself, but not to a government or any other person. There is liberty and economic development.

I’ve been here three months now and I’m still in the integration process. The government Rescue Agency has welcomed me as a political refuge and have offered help like paying my rent for three months until I can establish myself economically. At the end of this month, I’ll begin paying my own rent.

What do you think of Miami now?

Here, the minimum wage is 8 dollars an hour and in Cuba there are many times that we work for a month to earn 8 dollars. When you take that into account, it’s as though we are living a month per hour in this country. We are much more advanced compared to the situation that we had in Cuba. The Cuban emigrant experience is a social phenomenon, they have to understand that here you have to work and you can’t live at the expense of paternalism like in Cuba.

I don’t like that Cubans come here to talk badly about this country, and don’t denounce the inferno that we live in Cuba. Our right here is to reinsert ourselves in society… . Here I can have a job and live with dignity, breathing a peace that is impossible in Cuba. Here the laws exist for the good of the people, everything is regulated, but not to an extreme, it’s for our well being.

Are you still making music?

Unfortunately, I am not making music. I don’t have the possibility because I have to work and I don’t have time for music anymore. But, I feel good working and little by little I’ll accommodate myself and continue expressing my ideas through rap, because I have a lot to express. But my mind is still not in a condition to rap.

I have a lot of information in my brain, so much has happened. There are many things that I want to express, but I need to adapt to this new situation. I don’t want to do something just to do it.
It was through music that I began my struggle and my confrontation with the regime, and I still have a lot to communicate and denounce through music, which is the best form that I have to communicate what I think to the entire world. I hope to return to music once I adapt to the new life that I’ve begun.

Do you think you’ll return to Cuba?

I’ve never wanted to emigrate, I still haven’t realized that I’m actually living here now, but right now I don’t think there’s anything for me to do over there. While the current government is still in power, I would only go to Cuba under extreme circumstances, even though I carry the suffering and sacrifices of the Cuban people deep in my heart.

I am condemned to exile and it’s difficult for me to return to my country, principally because it’s not my wish to be in exile. I will continue supporting the Cubans and my brothers who are fighting for the liberty and rights of Cubans, with my modest efforts.

What would you tell Cuban young people that are planning to emigrate?

To the young people of Cuba, I would not advise them to sail in a raft through the Florida Strait or journey through the jungles of Central America. I would tell them to participate in civic organizations and to get to know their rights and learn how to defend them.

I feel very happy to see that Cubans are going out into the world, to learn about other countries to later be more prepared for the struggle in Cuba. Hopefully every day more Cubans can leave with the hope of returning and continuing their struggle there.