The new life of Cuban oppositionists in Spain

By Salim Lamrani

From the blog La pupila insomne (The sleepless eye)

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Léelo en Español

José María Aznar with former prisoners and family on their arrival in Spain.

At the petition of the Vatican and the Spanish government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the Cuban Catholic Church, headed by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, mediated with the authorities in Havana, an intervention that led in 2010 and 2011 to the release of 127 prison inmates, 52 of whom were considered “political” by Amnesty International [1].

According to that human rights organization, there are no prisoners of conscience in Cuba [2]. The Cuban Catholic Church shares this viewpoint [3]. Some sectors accused the Cuban government, the Catholic Church and the Zapatero government of forcing those people into exile. Several Western media outlets repeated that version [4]. The Spanish Popular Party (rightist) denounced “the expatriation” of the Cuban oppositionists [5]. Nevertheless, that version continues to resist any analysis. In effect, of the 127 persons released in the framework of the agreement between Havana, the Vatican and Madrid, 12 chose to remain in Cuba. Laura Pollan, the then-spokeswoman for the opposition group Ladies in White, and a bitter detractor of the Cuban government, spoke clearly on the subject: “Nobody has forced any prisoner to leave the country. Whoever says the opposite is lying.”

Similarly, several dissidents affirmed that at no time did the Cuban authorities ask them to leave the country as a precondition to their release [6].

Fernando Ravsberg, BBC correspondent in Havana, also denied that assertion. Several oppositionists who chose to leave the country told him that “they could have remained on the island if they had so wished. They assured me that at no time was departure abroad imposed upon them as a precondition for release” [7].

The painful reality in Spain

Far from finding a prosperous nation, the Cuban dissidents were strongly impacted by the economic crisis that besets Spain. Most of them have no jobs, no resources and sometimes no roof over their heads. The Red Cross shelters take care of them. According to the Spanish press, “one year after their arrival, the exiles are losing government aid and find themselves without any resources, because a huge majority of them have not found stable employment” [8].

The new right-wing Spanish government decided to eliminate the aid granted to the Cuban dissidents one year after their arrival and refused to extend it 12 months, as originally planned, for economic reasons [9].

In fact, Spain spent an average of 2,000 euros a month per person, i.e., more than 18 million euros, to cover the needs of the 115 oppositionists and their 648 relatives for one year. The cost was deemed to be too high in a country with 5 million unemployed citizens, about 25 percent of the active population [10].

Nevertheless, the Popular Party (PP) did not hesitate to use the Cubans in its political war against Havana and took four of them to Brussels to testify and defend the need to maintain the European Union’s Common Position toward Cuba, which limits political, diplomatic and cultural relations. However, the PP was ungrateful when it halted the financial assistance to them, leaving the Cuban oppositionists with the bitter feeling that they had been used [11].

Since their arrival in Spain, the oppositionists had ceaselessly expressed their support for the PP and criticized Zapatero’s PSOE [Socialist Workers Party], which had helped to release them [12]. Then, the Cuban dissidents decided to go on a hunger strike to protest against the PP’s decision and express their “total abandonment.” “It’s the only alternative we’ve got left,” said one of them, sitting under a tent outside the Spanish Foreign Ministry building [13].

Far from being attended by the Spanish authorities, the hunger strikers were “brutally” removed by the police and told to leave the public square [13]. Dawuimis Santana denounced the police brutality inflicted on them: “They were dragged along the ground, struck on the face and arms; one of them has a broken nose.” Four of them were arrested [15].

The forces of order usually are severe with demonstrators of every kind and made no exception with the Cuban oppositionists. Some observers said that the Popular Party, habitually very willing to come to the defense of the Cuban dissidents and denounce the “oppression” of which they were victims on the island, was this time very discreet when it came to the behavior of the Madrid municipal police toward them [16].

Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo, the Spanish Foreign Minister, acknowledged that the Cubans’ case was not “simple” and they were “in a difficult situation.” But he rejected any idea of extending their financial aid in view of the economic crisis afflicting the country. At most, he promised to speed up the process of validation of university diplomas [17].

Sometimes, the feeling of abandonment that the Cuban oppositionists experience in Spain takes tragic turns. Albert Santiago du Bouchet, who lived in the Canary Islands since his release, committed suicide on 4 April 2012 in response to the Spanish authorities eliminating his monthly cash allotment [18]. The Spanish government rejected any “direct link” between the suicide and the decision to end the financial aid. Still, his family and several friends stated that his precarious economic situation was the principal cause of the drama [19].

Return to Cuba?

Contrary to all predictions, several dissidents declared their intention of returning to Cuba if they couldn’t travel to the United States, accusing Spain of abandoning them [20]. “It’s better to be in Cuba than on the street here,” said Ismara Sanchez [21]. “I’ve been on the street since March 31,” unable to afford a room, complained Idalmis Nunez. “Things are difficult now; we have dragged our families far from home and we can’t feed them. For the first time in my life, my conscience weighs on me. I’m afraid,” admitted another oppositionist [22].

“The children have no more food, no milk. The children can’t go to school because they don’t have money for transportation,” said oppositionist Bermudez [23]. Orlando Fundora and his wife had to face such difficult living conditions that they even missed their homeland. In an interview with the BBC, Fundora unexpectedly confessed: “We ate better in Cuba [24].”

In reality, the decision to return to Cuba is not so surprising. Despite the nation’s limited resources, the difficulties and daily vicissitudes created by the economic blockade the United States has imposed since 1960, which affects all categories of the population and is the main obstacle to the nation’s development, the government of Havana has built a relatively effective system of social protection that satisfies the population’s basic needs.

Thus, despite the troubles, 85 percent of the Cubans own their homes. They also benefit from free access to education, health care and cultural activities. The ration card allows them to receive each month, in addition to their salary, a basic food basket that’s sufficient for two weeks. That way, nobody is left to his own devices and the state looks after the more vulnerable strata of society.

For that reason, despite the limits in natural resources, in Cuba you won’t find homeless people or abandoned children on the streets. According to UNICEF, Cuba is the only Third World country without malnourished children [25].

In the end, Europe was not the Eldorado promised to the Cuban oppositionists. They had to face the brutal economic reality of the Iberian peninsula and discovered that the most vulnerable were swiftly left to their own fate.

They also realized that their island is not the anteroom to Hell, despite the daily problems, and that Cuba’s system of social protection takes care of the weakest citizens.

The new life of Cuban oppositionists in Spain

[1] Amnesty International, “Cuba, Annual Report 2012”,
2012. http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/cuba/report-2012
(consulted on 2 July 2012).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Juan O. Tamayo, “Tense meeting of the Ladies in
White with the Cuban Church”, El Nuevo Herald, 25 May
2012.
[4] Axel Gylden, “In forced exile, a Cuban dissident kills
himself “, L’Express, 7 April 2012.
[5] Publico, “Aznar affirms that Cuban prisoners were `expatriated’ to
Spain”, 28 July 2010.
[6] Fernando Ravsberg, “The Catholic-communist
conspiracy”, BBC, 23 June 2011.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/mundo/cartas_desde_cuba/2011
/06/la_conspiracion_catolico-comun.html (site consulted
on 14 June 2012).
[7] Ibid.
[8] Carmen Perez-Lanzac, “Former political prisoners
who found refuge in Spain complain after losing their
aid”, El Pais, 11 April 2012.
[9] Carmen Perez-Lanzac, “Between 2010 and 2011,
767 Cubans arrived in Spain: 115 prisoners and their
relatives”, El Pais, 10 April 2010.
[10] Joaquin Gil, “The government pays 2,000 euros per
month for each of the 762 dissidents and relatives”, El
Pais, 13 July 2011.
[11] Jeronimo Andreu, “Former political prisoners
brought to Spain by Foreign Ministry one year ago lose
public assistance”, El Pais, 9 April 2012.
[12] EFE, “Cuban oppositionists ask Spain for a `more
forceful’ attitude toward Castroism”, 20 January 2012.
[13] EFE, “Ten former Cuban prisoners begin a hunger strike in
Madrid”, 13 April 2012.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Europa Press, “Arrest of four former Cuban
prisoners who protested outside the Foreign Ministry in
Madrid is decried”, 23 May 2012.
[16] EFE, “Spanish Popular Party demands Cuba
to stop oppressing the dissident movement”, 20 January
2012.
[17] Carmen Perez-Lanzac, “Former political
prisoners who sought refuge in Spain protest after
losing their aid”, El Pais, 11 April 2012.
[18] El Pais, “Former Cuban political prisoner dies; he arrived
in Spain last year”, 6 April 2012.
[19] Europa Press, “Spain sees no `direct link’ between
a dissident’s suicide and the end of aid”, 9 April 2012.
[20] Juan O. Tamayo, “Former Cuban political prisoners experience
nightmare in Spain”, El Nuevo Herald, 17 April 2012.
[21] Rios Biot, “`Better to be in Cuba than on the
street here'”, El Pais, 13 April 2012.
[22] Jeronimo Andreu, “Former political prisoners
brought to Spain by Foreign Ministry one year ago lose
public assistance”, El Pais, 9 April 2012.
[23] EFE, “Former Cuban prisoners denounce in Madrid
their `total abandonment'”, 10 April 2012.
[24] Fernando Ravsberg, “The Catholic-communist
conspiracy”, BBC, op. cit. [25] UNICEF, Progress for
children. A report card on nutrition, 2011.

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