JUAREZ, Mexico (KTSM) – They flew out of Havana several months ago to countries friendly to Cuba’s communist regime. But soon enough, these men and women began slipping across the borders of Venezuela and Nicaragua on a long journey north to the United States, where they hope to find the political freedom and economic prosperity that eludes them back home.

Today, thousands of Cubans crowd the streets of Mexican border cities like Juarez, waiting months for their turn at an asylum hearing in the United States. And, while they wait, they’re changing the economy, labor market and cuisine of the border, local officials say.

Cubans can be seen coming in and out of Downtown Juarez hotels that have been nearly empty for decades. Local eateries now hang cardboard signs peddling Cuban and Creole dishes. Residents are getting used to the Caribbean-Spanish accent of waiters, hair-stylists and security guards in shops.

Some 15,000 migrants have come to Juarez since October, and 60 percent of them are Cubans, according to the government of the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

“The Cuban immigrants are helping revitalize the economy of Downtown Juarez,” said Joaquin Gutierrez, who owns a restaurant, a security company and the De Luxe hotel here. “I employ 60 people and I’m always looking for workers because Juarez has a labor shortage. Now I have Cubans working in all my businesses. When they’re called to their asylum hearings in the United States and they leave, others come in and take their place.”

Cubans spend their money in hotels, eateries and clothing shops in Downtown Juarez, an area in economic decline since American tourists all but stopped coming due to reports of escalating drug violence beginning in 2010. Those who don’t work receive money from relatives in the United States who are waiting for them.

‘Little Havana’

A Cuban flag sways in the wind in front of a tiny eatery along Ramon Corona Street in Downtown Juarez. Inside, murals depict street scenes in Old Havana. A big red sign behind the counter bellows “Bienvenidos” (Welcome). An outline of the iconic Che Guevara hangs on a wall.

Behind the counter of Little Havana restaurant, Abel Rodriguez is busy handling food trays and washing dishes. It’s quite a change for the 45-year-old former physical education teacher from Holguin, Cuba. But the way he sees it, he had no choice but to leave the island.

“I suffered political persecution because of my views. I was in danger of going to jail or becoming one of the ‘disappeared’ ones,” he says. The short version is that he had disagreements with local government officials and felt targeted after he voiced his concerns in public.

“I sold my house and sent my children and their mom to my mother-in-law. We talked and we agreed that I had to go,” he says.

Allowed to fly to Venezuela, a staunch political ally of the Cuban regime, Rodriguez stayed there only as long as necessary before crossing into Colombia and racing north through Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and entering Mexico through the southern state of Chiapas.

Five months later, he finds himself in Juarez, waiting for his number to be called for an asylum hearing in El Paso. He hopes to be admitted into the United States, work and eventually be able to bring his family over.

Rodriguez wasn’t aware of Juarez’s reputation for violence and says he has seen none of it yet.

“It is a very welcoming city. Its people are very warm,” he says. “I think that, like everywhere else, if you go looking for trouble you will find trouble. I work most of the day and then go straight to my hotel.”

Little Havana belongs to Cristina Ibarra, a Juarez entrepreneur who had a chance encounter with the Cubans a few months ago.

She used to run a taco place on Juarez Avenue, the street that leads to one of the bridges to El Paso. She would see the Cubans come and go looking for familiar food.

“They would ask me, ‘do you have rice?’ I said, ‘no, I sell tacos,'” she recalls.

One day, a Cuban man asked to borrow her kitchen to cook for a group of his friends. “The problem is they don’t like spicy Mexican food, they don’t eat chile. They were literally getting sick from Mexican food.”

Then the Cubans asked her to cook special orders for them. When she realized she was cooking for 50 to 70 people, her El Mariachi restaurant expanded beyond tacos. “So many Cubans were coming to my place that my regular clients started to turn their backs on me.”

So did her landlord. Her lease had expired a couple of years ago but, suddenly, the owner needed the building.

It was a blessing in disguise, she said, for she found an empty locale right behind the hotels where many of the Cubans are staying. She went with an all-Cuban menu — pork, rice, seasoned meat — and hung a Cuban flag outside. Her business has been thriving ever since.

Old hotels, new life

The Continental Hotel, built in 1946, still has remnants of its former glory. A wide staircase in the lobby leads to the upper room; chandeliers hang from a high ceiling in the lobby.

But the hotel has been mostly empty in the past few years, as Downtown Juarez has lost its appeal to visitors. In the past few months, however, occupancy has doubled and groups of people come and go day and night, says manager Enrique Deschamps.

“Business is up 100 percent since the Cubans arrived. Before, we might be able to sell 15 rooms on a weekend, now we rent out 30 every day,” he said.

The hotelier doesn’t know how long the trend will continue, but he says it’s a welcome development for Juarez.

Sitting on a breakfast table at the Continental, friends Alonzo Milan and Giovani Calmel discuss the lengthy wait they’ll have to endure before their asylum hearing in El Paso. One a carpenter, the other a furniture upholsterer tell remarkably similar stories about what drove them out of Cuba.

“The regime takes everything away from you. They don’t let you have anything, they don’t let you get ahead,” Milan said.

Calmel, meantime, complained about an arbitrary seizure of his working materials. “You work hard, you give the government what is due but still they come and take things away from you,” he said.

He tells of how he was allowed to travel to Russia and on the way back purchased special cloth for his upholstery shop. When Cuban officials found about it, they seized most of it, he says.

“You couldn’t even finish five sets of furniture with what they left, and on top of that, they give you a fine. And you cannot even dispute things because nothing good will happen,” he said.

Both men said they were aware of Juarez’s reputation for violence, but they feel safe.

“Everyone has been good to us. Juarez is a good place. The (state) government even gave us free health insurance for three months in case we get sick here. I have nothing but good things to say about Juarez.”