About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of refugee Pavel's side profile standing in front of the Cuban flag

Pavel Herrera Hernández

Pictures taken in:



Photo and interview by:




Mirza Durakovic

“In Cuba, if you face the dictatorship you are called crazy,” says Pavel Herrera Hernández (48). As part of the opposition to Castro, Herrera Hernández was at risk of being imprisoned. So in 2016, he fled—first to Suriname, then to French Guiana, then to France, where he arrived in 2019 after being granted asylum. “In my homeland, there is a dictatorship and I’m facing it. And even though it’s hard, it gives you strength.” He now lives in Paris, working full-time in construction and learning French. “Today my dream is to be happy,” he says. “Enjoy what I never had in Cuba—enjoy rights, respect.” It’s come at a cost, however: asked by his children when he will return, Herrera Hernández says he couldn’t respond. “I hung up the phone…tears came out of me. That’s the hardest part, the hardest price to pay for living in freedom.” Along with other Cubans in France, he continues to advocate for democracy in his homeland. “You don’t give up,” he says. “You have to fight.”

Trigger Warning:

full interview

(French Interviewer)
Spanish interpreter

(Okay, Hello Pavel, good morning, Pavel. Hello. Could you please introduce yourself?)
Can you introduce yourself, Pavel?
My name is Pavel Herrera Hernandez. I was born in Cuba on June 22, 1972, in Havana.

(Where are you living today? Are you living in a house or in an apartment? )
What is your current location, where do you live? In a house, in an apartment, in a shelter?
I’m living in Aurora’s Shelter (of Aurora’s property or she in charge of it). By Aurora, I mean…the apartment in which she located me.

(Are you content? Are you happy?)
Are you happy there? Are you, are you happy?
Yes (of course) I am happy about more than the shelter itself, I am happy because I live in France, in the freedom that I never had and that for me is the most important thing.

(What are you doing in France? On a daily basis? Everyday work and activities.)
When I arrived in France I came from French Guiana, and the first thing I did was change the documents of Guiana to here. At the same time, I started going to school, to French school, and then, I have had two part-time jobs. I worked as a kitchen assistant, I worked part-time in an exchange company and now I have a somewhat more stable job. I’ve been on construction for three months, I’m working in construction right now.

(Are you happy with your work?)
Are you happy about the work you’re currently doing?
I’ll tell you again, I’m happy in a general sense with my new life. Because I don’t master French very well, I have to work on whatever comes up. I do have my feet on the ground. I am aware that I have just arrived in this country, that I do not speak the language. I’m aware that I can’t be choosing where to work right now, I have to work on whatever it comes to me.

(Aside from work, do you do anything else?)
Other than your work, do you do other things?
No, I really have little social life right now, because among other things there is the problem of the pandemic. There is little social life generally speaking, but I really have little social life because I have met few people like me who speak Spanish, are Cuban like me, and I have really had little social life.

(Ok, how do you feel about that, of not having this social life? )
For example, that situation you are living, that there is no social life like you are used to, how do you feel, how do you live it?
I can say, I can brag about my adaptation system, I adapt to what it is…in my life has been a little hard. From Cuba, all my life I suffered repression and I adapt. If there’s food I eat, if you have to endure hunger, I can take it. If there is a mattress I sleep on the mattress, if you have to throw yourself on the floor, I’ll throw myself on the floor. So with that adaptation system that I have, everything is “normal” for me because it’s not…it’s not normal what is happening right now. Walking down the street with a mask is not normal. But well, I pretty much adapt to everything.

(Ok, we can talk a little bit about your life in Cuba can you tell us a little about it?)
Talk a little bit about your life in Cuba. Can you tell us?
I told you I was born in 1972. In 1959, dictator Fidel Castro came to power, that is to say, when I was born Fidel Castro was 13 years in power. I went to the government’s school, everything, everything controlled by the regime, everything. And I went to the school of the… But one good day, one good day I was a little kid and I remember that I was a boy and I agreed with my other neighborhood friends to the carnival. “Well, let’s go to the carnival and party hard”. Everyone went to their house to eat after, see us, to go for the carnivals. And I remember I’m in the house eating. There is a Russian TV in black and white and there is the dictator talking, talking, blah blah blah, and I remember him, I have it in my mind, he raises his finger and says that never in Cuba the police had hit a citizen. I finish eating and I’m leaving for the carnival. And getting to the carnival, I don’t know what happened. There’s a citizen on the floor and the police are beating him. That day I was a kid. I had gone to the school of the regime, indoctrinated that Fidel was God in Cuba. And then that day I realized, I say Fidel Castro was a liar. That day…I haven’t forgotten it. That day I said: This man lies. Just by entering the carnival, they were beating a person. And then those things made me change. In Cuba, for example, I lived in Centro Habana and one day I was walking through Plaza, Plaza is a municipality adjacent to Centro Habana. And there was a cop coming, asking me for ID. “Citizen, your ID card.” I gave them my ID. The officer looks at it and tells me: “Citizen, if you’re from Central Havana, what are you doing in Vedado?” Imagine yourself! Me, a citizen who didn’t owe anything to justice, walking down the normal street, without any kind of trouble. I told the police that Fidel Castro was from the East and that he was in Havana. He told me: what, what, what? And I repeated: that Fidel Castro is from the East and is in Havana. That night I slept in a dungeon until the next day with a fine, with a fine. It is those things, those injustices that I saw in Cuba, that caused that one good day, one good day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights fell into my hands. And that was love at first sight. When I read the Declaration of Human Rights, at the moment I started, I became interested in scouting opponents of the regime. And one good day I came across a person and I went into opposition to the Castro dictatorship.

(In what year that was taking place?)
What year was it, more or less?
2007.In 2007 I joined the opposition line and, and to tell you, being an opponent under a totalitarian regime is something…they attack you with family, friends or work, with all kinds [of things]. That’s how that kind of dictatorships works.

(How did you feel? Sad, angry?)
How did you feel? Sad, angry, choleric?
When were you facing the regime?

In that situation you’re telling, how did you feel?
It’s a mixture of feelings because it makes you angry, you’re angry by threats, their baseness, tight handcuffs, unjustly dungeons. That makes you angry. But at the same time, at the same time, it gives you a joy to tell dictators, murderers: down with the dictatorship. That gives you personal satisfaction when the largest percentage of the population has two faces: they are pretending. They are lying. And you have the decorum to face them. That makes you feel great about yourself, with your conscience. I had friends who said, “Pavel, are you crazy? Crazy!” In Cuba, if you face the dictatorship you are called crazy. So my friend said, “but are you crazy?” I’m not crazy. This doesn’t work, this doesn’t work. Why is there an imposed communism!? They’d say to me “no, it’s true, you’re right” but they wouldn’t join the opposition ranks because it’s a lot. The oppression is very strong. It’s a state of terror, to define it.

(Where did you find the force to get through this?)
How did you find the strength to overcome, to “surpass” all that vicissitudes all those things?
That’s a question…One doesn’t know where the force is found. I think strength is in your conviction. I walked the streets of my Cuba and I saw the collapsed buildings, broken streets, broken sidewalks. It’s a disaster, it’s really a disaster. No one had to tell me what I was seeing with my eyes. So the behavior, the behavior of the oppressors, the threats. I’m gonna send you to “Buika,” I’ll send you to “See Grandes.” They’re prisons in Cuba. I’m gonna throw you out of work. Then you realize that these people don’t have an ideology. They say: Communism, an ideology? No, they act as a mob. Their real behavior is mobster-like. They want to lead you to terror, fear, scare you. So, those things, that thing gives you strength for you to say I’m on the right side. I’m in the right place in history. In my homeland, there is a dictatorship and I’m facing it. And even though it’s hard, it gives you strength.

(At a certain point…you thought… I should just stop, I must finish with this… )
At a certain point in this whole process with your condition, what you lived with, you said I have to stop, I can’t go on anymore, or you lost strength, you understand?
No, let’s see…I got fired from work, I am expelled. When US President Barack Obama visits Cuba, I leave my house for work, and minions are hidden in the dark. I go out, the patrol with the minions, remember I told the “What’s the antic? I’m going to work,” and they tell me there’s no work. They handcuff me, take me in detention until Barack Obama leaves the country. You know Obama in Cuba, the international press. And then when I go out when Obama goes and let me go the next day I go to work and the job director tells me that I was…got expelled, that I had been thrown out of unjustified absence. That is, the regime stops me, leads me to (inaudible). It’s a machine to grind men, it’s a piece of destructive machinery, it’s machinery made for that. The Cuban dictatorship was fed by Russian intelligence, the intelligence of democratic Germany, all the evil of world communism. They have fed on that. Then I was kicked out of work for unjustified absence. When I was leaving my house for work and they stopped me. Of course, there is no private property in Cuba, there is no private property and the director of my work is taking part in the Communist Party and responds to the interests of the regime, and that is why I was kicked out. That was in March. In March 2016. In January 2016 I went to Havana’s Cathedral. It was the Mass of the Rooster. All the opponents, all the opponents, we had agreed to meet at the Cathedral. And I’m going, I’m walking towards the cathedral. And the minions were, they had the cathedral surrounded so that the opponents would not enter. And the minions tell me: Pavel, there’s no cathedral. That’s how they talk to you, they. With that disregard of telling a free man that he owes nothing to justice, that there is no cathedral because they don’t want there to be a cathedral. That bothered me. Evidently, that bothered me, that position of strength, once again. I step away and the cathedral is a very central place, it is a tourist area, a lot of tourism. The first day of the year and I turn away and start screaming slogans against the regime: “Down with the dictatorship, down Fidel! Freedom! Long live human rights!” And come for me, they cuff me and take me to a staircase from a normal building, waiting, waiting for the patrol to arrive. And the boss, the head of section 21, that is, of all the mobsters, is the boss of those mobsters, he said, “This thing you did to me today, you’re going to pay me. I’m gonna throw you out of work and then I’m gonna put you in jail.” That was January, the first day of the year. By March I had already been kicked out of work, by March I had already been sacked from work; fulfilling their word, their damn word. And then, that was in March. I run away. We have to say so. I escaped from Cuba in June. I was already on the street, out of work. Marked by the intelligence organs of the dictatorship and I escaped from Cuba on June 17, 2016, via Suriname, Paramaribo, a country I didn’t know. My thing was to escape the clutches of Castroism, which had threatened to kick me out of work and take me to prison. And they had already taken the first step. I had already been kicked out of work. Now what was missing to go to prison was the second step.

(When you arrived in Suriname, did you think a lot about your country, and did you think about getting back?)
When you arrived in Suriname…your thoughts were towards Cuba?, did you still think about coming back?
When I arrived in Suriname it was, it was something like something new to me. Everything new. I’ve never left my country before. I left Cuba at the age of 44. I’ve never left my country before. And when I arrived in Suriname, yes, the wounds were fresh, the wounds, the memory was fresh in my mind. The brothers and sisters that I had left behind in the cause. Everything was very fresh. But no, going back, no, it was never an option. It’s like, it’s like when you run away, like when you escape from prison. You’re not going to go back on your own feet. And although it was very difficult, because Suriname was difficult. I had in a jungle, in the jungle of Suriname. And although everything was very difficult, the option to return was not… wasn’t in my plans. At the same time, you know the freedom you breathe, you realize that she is blessed. Freedom is something really ‘blessed,’ I can’t find it another qualifier. When you get to meet it [the freedom], I, without knowing it, I loved her. In Cuba, under a regime, I was free. I said what I thought. I, without knowing her, I loved her. After I met her, I’d rather die a thousand times than live in slavery.

But when you came to Suriname, it wasn’t complete freedom. First of all, you passed a lot of things (work). How was that life in the jungle? When you arrived, it was a vision. Then what you lived with.
In the jungle, I went to work on a sawmill. I went to work there because at that time I contacted the UNHCR office, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. At that time I contacted UNHCR and I am waiting for their reply. Then, I had to work and I get to work in a sawmill in the jungle. UNHCR gave me refugee status, recognized my persecution by the regime. And I ask UNHCR for resettlement. I don’t know if you know that resettlement is in UNHCR’s statutes. No political persecuted must be in a country allied to the regime that they escaped. I left Cuba in June and the dictator died in November. The president of Suriname went to the Cuban dictator’s burial and obviously, Suriname is an ally of the dictatorship. And under that notion that a refugee should not be in a country allied to the escaped regime, I asked UNHCR to resettle. At that time there were more Cuban opponents and we met, and when we were in front of UNHCR offices demanding resettlement, we were not asking the Surinamese government anything. We know he’s an ally of the dictatorship. We are asking UNHCR for resettlement. The President of Suriname, the President of Suriname, makes a public statement in Parliament against us. That means, the President of Suriname publicly threatened us in parliament and that is when we decided to leave for French Guiana, that is another story.

When we arrived in French Guiana, we arrived at the French Alliance. We arrived in French Guiana, we started the procedures to seek asylum, to seek asylum at the French Red Cross. And it was a very difficult stage, because in French Guiana, without papers, without documents, you can’t work. It was a difficult, difficult stage. We lived in a squat, you understand? We squatted… It was a difficult period. My interview was in February 2018. And the answer was in October, that is eight months. Eight long months waiting for France’s response.

(Following that…how do you feel when you got the response of France?)
How did you feel when you had the answer that France gave you?
Imagine yourself…being in a foreign country without a document. First was the repression in Cuba. Then the threat from the president of Suriname. When France gave us recognition, asylum, it was an immense joy. It was something…it was…great. It was the recognition of a democratic country. The acknowledgment that what we were doing was right. Human rights are universal, respect is universal and the Cuban regime tramples it. And for France to open the door for us was a recognition of our struggle, our desire to want for Cuba what there is in most of the world. Democracy, multi-party system, freedom of the press, freedom of expression. All those kinds of freedoms that make up democracy.

(You think… You showed me photos of… Your wife, your children? Do you think a lot about your wife or your kids?)
You had a picture of your family, I imagine. Did you think about it a lot, your wife, your son?
That’s the saddest part of history. I have a daughter, she’s old. Before I leave Cuba I go to my daughter and she says to me: “Dad if we’re not going to see each other because you are leaving or because you’re in prison…you better go.” That’s what my daughter told me. A few days ago, my daughter, who is already a woman, she’s all grown-up, and says, “Dad, can’t you come and go again?” I tell her: “My love, I can’t go to Cuba, how can you ask me that?” And she said: “Dad, I miss you.” There are parts of the story that are hard and even though she’s the older sibling. The youngest kid said to me: “Dad, when will you come for me?” I said, “No, Dad’s on a job, Dad loves you very much.” A boy at the time of five years, six years old doesn’t understand that…and he was telling me: “but Dad, until when is that job?” The children in Cuba are very sharp and he’d say “how long is that job?” And I’m not ashamed to tell you that I hung up the phone, that tears came out of me. That’s the hardest part, the hardest price to pay for living in freedom.

(So, how did you arrive in France, what were you feeling on arrival, what were your first sensations? )
Well, now that forgotten Suriname, when you got to France, what were your impressions? What did you feel? Aside from freedom.
The story is amazing, before me, a Cuban came from Guiana, a year ago. The Cuban, that was my reference. I had no other, imagine going to a country where there is no one waiting for you at the airport, no address, nothing. And my Cuban friend says to me: “When you get to Orly Airport, take a bus to Charles, Charles de Gaulle Airport and there look for the Red Cross office.” That’s what I did and the Red Cross office sent me to the city of Orleans. My friend is in Orleans today. I did what he told me. I went from Orly to Charles, looking for the Red Cross office. The man who assisted me at the Red Cross asked me for the documents. I gave them to him and the gentleman tells me that I was French, that he couldn’t do anything for me. I want you to understand what I’m talking about. That was my plan A and I didn’t have plan B. I left Charles de Gaulle airport completely disoriented. I did not know whether to walk to the right, or to the left, or to the center, and take a cab… A cab to where? What address? And I started walking and walking and walking. On a fast road, you know, airports are far from the city center and cars “buzzed.” The only human being who was walking was me. Until it looks like a gentleman climbed up and saw me walking and went down and stopped the car. The gentleman said to me: “Oh, ah, ah, ah!” On top of this, my French wasn’t good. And I just told him: “Center of Paris, center of Paris.” The sir picked me up in his car, showed me a subway, it’s a station. I’d never seen a subway station in my life. That for me was a whole new world. It was a strong shock. Then I saw that some people put the tickets in, others jumped. I didn’t know what to do. And then, until I realized that I walked in, I walked into a subway that I don’t know what subway it was. I didn’t know which station to stop. I was completely disoriented. I asked a gentleman: “Center of Paris” and he does like this [does a gesture]…and he tells me: “This is the center of Paris.” I got off with my bag. I looked and said how nice the city, nice city…said how nice, but I was… I didn’t know where to go! And I didn’t know. I start walking, walking, and I saw a church, and I went into it and I asked…I saw a lady and I said: “Look ma’am, I just arrived from Guiana.” And she gives me a book with an address. In February it is cold here in France and the City Hall picks up people who are on the street sleeping. With such good luck I didn’t sleep on the street because the lady gave me an address for a City Hall and I slept next to the Louvre, in the City Hall next to the Louvre. Of course, you had to leave at six in the morning. Then I got out, like the rest, at six in the morning to the street with my purse. And little by little it was that I started doing things right, changing the documents and all that stuff.

(Here, in France, what gave you the force once again to continue, to carry on? Was there a moment when you felt a bit…?)
When you arrived in France you are “already going through [things]” and there are difficulties and there are still difficulties, what gave you the strength to continue?
Force is… One is a warrior. You don’t give up and you have your family in Cuba and you have to fight. France has given me everything and not only in goods but in how they behaved towards me. I’ve been in the offices with French officials, social workers, different teachers, and everything has been kindness. [speaks in French] “Hello Sir, how are you doing? How are you feeling?” A kindness, an education that I was shocked. I grew up in the communist regime, where the information was totally manipulated. They told you that the people in capitalism were bad, everything that was capitalism was bad people. And then you realize they were lying to you because without being perfect, because nothing is perfect, people here are kind, polite, supportive. Quite the opposite of what you were told there. There, they’d tell you that if a car hit you, they would leave you lying on the floor and carry one and those kinds of things.

(Do you think a lot about what is going on in Cuba?)
Do you think into your mind about what’s happening in Cuba?
Of course. Half my heart is in Cuba. My family is in Cuba. It’s all in Cuba. My friends, my neighbors. The suffering that the regime causes hurts me. I’m still entering a market, entering a market crowded with food, and I think about Cuba. I worked in the kitchen. I told you I worked in a kitchen. One day I made breakfast was over and there was a container with milk left. My boss told me to throw it away. I was about to tell the French chef that I couldn’t do that. I thought I’d tell him, “No sir, I can’t do that. Where I come from children don’t have milk.” And then I was about to tell the boss and I have to tell you that I closed my eyes and dumped the milk with my eyes closed. Of course, my heart is in Cuba… of course.

(Are you, here, taking part in things… I mean, are you continuing your battle here? )
Are you still continuing your fight here for Cuba today?
Yes. I joined an association of Cubans in France for democracy. I was just a week ago in front of the regime’s embassy and I…yes…I feel like a human rights activist. I feel opposed to the regime and I want Cuba to have the rule of law. There shouldn’t have to be 60…more than 60 years of an implemented regime that what has done is a huge harm to the nation.

(So, Pavel, as a last question for this project, what was your dream before leaving (Cuba)?)
What was your dream before you left Cuba?
Actually, when I left Cuba, my idea was the United States of America. I don’t know if you know that the largest community of exiles is in Miami. Cubans like me, anti-Castro, democrats, are mostly in the United States and my idea was actually to join the anti-Castro exile and continue fighting from the United States, living in exile. But well, life…fate…Fate wanted something else and I’m here now in Europe, in France. But that was, actually, my idea: the United States and to join the exile to continue to face the regime.

(Okay, could you please quote that, to give it more structure…saying that before leaving?)
You have to structure the phase well (better)…so that for example, when the answer comes everything looks good, that is…my dream before leaving, when I left Cuba was this, this and that, you have to say the whole phrase, understood?, as if I put it, you put it that way: I am…
Ok, understood, should I do it again?.

(Yes, shorter. )
(It’s a dream that you don’t have to tell all your hopes (referring to descriptions). My dream, it’s… try to think concise about what it was. My dream was the United States and… )
Should I say it again?

Yeah, but concise, precise beforehand and then he’s going to ask you the question.
Okay, now? … My dream when I left Cuba, was… was to get to the United States, where most of the Cuban anti-Castro exiles like me live. Cubans who… who want democracy for Cuba are mostly in the United States.

(And today?)
And today? Always start the phrase (with that).
Today my dream… is to be happy. I don’t know, work, be happy, enjoy what…what I never had in Cuba. And I do not mean material things, to enjoy the rights, of respect. Those things that we live here in France, respect for my rights, that my way of thinking arises no issue.

(Good, super, and can I ask you a question, as your situation is a very particular one…)
He says he’s going to ask you a question because it’s a particular situation.
(Yes, because you know, usually it’s people who have lived through wars. So these events are pretty short. Or, if it’s a dictatorship, they flee (bah) pretty quickly. But there, like you, you understood that the dictatorship was a dictatorship very early on, very young… Did you have any dreams before you joined the opposition? Do you understand what I mean? [To the interpreter] Yes, sorry. )

(So as I asked, you had a dream before the dictatorship… When you realized that the dictatorship would prevent you from achieving this dream?)
Can you tell me your dream before you realized that dictatorship prevented you from achieving that dream?
In Cuba, dreams are not… Everything, It’s all so hard that dreams… I always wanted to be an athlete. I always liked sport. I played basketball, I played basketball. But well, also beyond the dictatorship situation, there is the family situation, and at home, I didn’t have a good father. My dad wasn’t a good father and I finished school in ninth grade and started working. Actually, the dream I had of being an athlete wasn’t achievable. Due to the conditions of the country and my family.

(Ok, it’s very interesting, could you say that phrase… before I joined the opposition party…)
So, now you already have the idea, it’s very well explained, but you want it to be more accurate and concise. I mean, say: “my dream before that is to be an athlete, and it’s as easy as it is short, with the same things.
And I’m not talking about the same things.

(No, no, no [mumbles]. )
My dream before being an opponent [to the Castro regime] was to be an athlete. I’ve always liked sports.

(Okay, perfect, thank you so much, Pavel, thank you, thank you very much.)

(What can you tell us about what happened when you got expelled?)
Can you please tell us what happened to you when you had an expulsion (in the sense of migration) in France? In which place? How was it?
Actually, a Colombian friend told me he was squatting. At that time I had just arrived in this country. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have any money. I had nowhere to go. And I went into that the property. In that place, I picked up a small office just to sleep in. There was no bathroom, no kitchen, there were no conditions at all. But it was good enough for me to sleep in for a while, whilst I got the paperwork from the French Guiana to here done. One good day, the police went and kicked us all out from the squat house. I showed my documents to the people who went with the police, my documents from the shelter. Many people who were there were without documents. I was one of the few people who had documents and lived there. Then when I got expelled, that’s when I miss school, because I was staying on the streets, and when I go to see the teacher the next day, I tell her that I was missing because she was on the streets, that I had been thrown out of the squat house. The teacher who was very kind, talked to a person from Aurora’s [referring to that she got in contact with people in their social circle], from Aurora’s shelter and in about a week or so, I… they, between the teacher and a government employee, who belong to Aurora, helped me and I’ve been at the shelter ever since then.

(All right. And to this day, are you still in that shelter?)
Are you currently living in that foyer?
I currently live in that shelter.

(Okay, thank you very much, Pavel. )
(Thank you very much, do you have any words to say about the topic of refugees in general?)
Now he is asking you if you have anything to say about the topic of refugees in general?

(Not only the Cubans, not only the Cubans but in general.)
From, I don’t know, any comments, anything you want to say about it.

(The question is… do you have a message on the subject of the réfugiés? )
Do you have a personal message on the issue of refugees that you want to express?
Well, first of all, it would be good to end the hypocrisy in the world of the United Nations and all international organizations, so refugees don’t need to exist…so that every person can be happy in the country they were born in. But since that is so difficult because this world is…unfortunately, unfortunately economic interests are above the freedoms and rights. That’s the world. As refugees exist…I think people should… the country that hosts must be respectful of the refugee’s pain, because living away from their land, their family, friends, culture, is not easy. It is very difficult and at the same time, the refugee must be respectful of the host country, the host nation and they must be more respectful than a citizen born in the same country. [They should be] based on gratitude, gratitude to the country that welcomed him, that’s what I think. On the one hand, the country must be respectful of the refugee’s pain. On the other hand, the refugee must be respectful of the host nation.

(Thank you very much Pavel.)

Many 1000 Dreams interviews were not conducted in English. Their translation has not always been performed by professional translators. Despite great efforts to ensure accuracy, there may be errors.