Emigrés Caught Between Bush and Castro

Once again, a U.S. government seems to be achieving exactly the opposite of what it says it is aiming for with its Cuba policy.

Many of the more than 500 moderate Cuban emigrés taking part in the third Nation and Emigration Conference, hosted by the Cuban government over the weekend, joined in when “Cuba va,” one of the songs traditionally sung at gatherings to "reaffirm" this country’s socialist revolution, was intoned.

The conference, whose panels took place behind closed doors, ended Sunday with the waving of Cuban flags, shouts of "Viva Fidel!" and anti-U.S. chants.

The support that was expressed for President Fidel Castro’s response to new U.S. measures designed to stiffen the four-decade U.S. embargo against Cuba would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.

The program to "hasten the transition to a free Cuba," announced this month by U.S. President George W. Bush, will go into effect on June 1.

But even dissidents in Cuba have spoken out loudly against the new measures, which will restrict travel to the island by Cuban-Americans and the inflow of dollars.

A unified sense of rejection appears to be the general reaction to the Bush administration’s plan.

Even leading dissident Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, one of the few participants in the three-day meeting to openly challenge the Cuban government, lashed out at the U.S. plan that will affect Cuban residents and emigrés alike.

Cuba’s transition "is our own internal affair, which involves Cubans," said Gutiérrez Menoyo, who decided to remain in Havana last year at the end of a family visit, even though he has not received permission from the Cuban government to return from exile in the United States.

Gutiérrez Menoyo, the president of the dissident group Cuban Change, spoke out during the conference in favor of freedom of expression and association, and advocated the creation of at least one other political party in Cuba, besides the governing Communist Party.

"Democracy is created from diversity," Gutiérrez Menoyo, a former member of Castro’s guerrilla army that seized power in 1959 who later spent 22 years in prison after becoming a critic of the socialist system, told the foreign press.

He also called for a broader, deeper agenda than the one he said was "imposed" on the conference by Cuban authorities.

The meeting in Havana included panels on U.S. policy towards Cuba, migration issues, culture, business and investment.

At the meeting, the Cuban government confirmed that as of June 1 it would eliminate the requirement of a visa for all Cubans abroad who wish to visit their homeland.

The more flexible customs procedure announced by Havana stands in stark contrast to the tighter restrictions to be put in place by the Bush administration, which, among other things, will reduce authorized visits by Cuban-Americans to their homeland to one every three years instead of once a year.

In addition, Cubans living in the United States and their descendants will only be able to visit immediate family members in Cuba: parents, siblings, grandparents, sons and daughters, or spouses.

To counter the new Bush administration plan, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque announced university scholarships and courses in Cuban history and culture and the Spanish language for the children of emigrés, as well as the creation of a new government department for relations with the Cuban diaspora.

The Foreign Ministry also pledged to work with the relevant authorities to guarantee streamlined, safe customs procedures, in response to one of the main complaints voiced by Cubans living abroad.

Nearly 168,000 emigrés and their descendants visited Cuba last year, 115,000 of them coming from the United States, according to Foreign Ministry sources. Most of the estimated 1.5 million Cubans living overseas maintain ties with their relatives in this Caribbean island nation of 11.2 million.

Travelers complain of being treated poorly in Cuban airports, and of being charged extra for excess baggage when they enter the country, often based on the estimate of a government functionary rather than a reliable system for weighing luggage.

Attendees who spoke with IPS said there was a significantly different tone between this year’s conference and earlier ones. "Many of the problems we had back then have been overcome," said a Cuban-American woman who preferred not to be identified.

During the 1978 landmark meeting known simply as the "Dialogue," which opened a process that Foreign Minister Pérez Roque described as "irreversible," the representatives of the Cuban exile community pressed to be allowed to visit their homeland, which was still off-limits to Cubans who had left the country.

As a result of that meeting, more than 102,000 Cuban emigrés visited the island in 1979, many of whom had not seen their families for 10 or 15 years.

One of the main concerns of emigrés in the decade of the 1990s was their right to retain their Cuban nationality and identify themselves as Cubans regardless of where they were living.

The sense of belonging took on a special importance in the case of artists and writers, whose work was negated and basically banished from the spectrum of national culture merely because it was created outside of Cuba.

Among the roughly 20 immigration measures approved by the Cuban government over the past decade figures the elimination of the requisite that Cubans who emigrated legally had to wait five years before they could visit their homeland.

The government also reduced the minimum age for traveling abroad for personal reasons to 18 years, and made it possible for emigrés over 60 to retire in Cuba.

Although emigration to the United States, home to 1.3 million Cubans and their descendants, is still basically a permanent move, authorities have made it possible for Cubans to take up temporary residence in other nations.

Sources at the Foreign Ministry report that more than 50,000 Cubans are now living in other countries on a temporary basis, without losing their property on the island, as is the case with those whose departure is "definitive."

The loss of property and the requirement of an exit permit to travel overseas for any reason were described by Pérez Roque as "defensive" strategies.

The minister said such measures would only be scrapped when Cuba ceases to be the victim of the U.S. economic sanctions and hostile Cuba policy, and U.S. tactics aimed at drawing away Cuban professionals, or fomenting the "brain drain."

The embargo and Bush’s "brutal" measures are the main obstacle to the full normalization of relations between the Cuban state and the community of emigrés, said the minister at the closing of the conference.