Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Dispatches: Cuba’s released political prisoners in Spain

Reading Time: 7 minutesThey may no longer be in the Castros’ wretched jails, but the first wave of political prisoners released already has a lot to say about their putative benefactor and the conditions of their release.
Reading Time: 7 minutes

“Seven years among cockroaches and rats can’t compare to what my family has suffered.” -Normando Hernández, 40 journalist. (Portrait courtesy of Tábata Peregrín).

Reading Time: 7 minutes

It’s not easy to get to the Welcome, the hostel chosen by the Spanish government to house the Castro regime’s former political prisoners during their first days of freedom. Unlike many of the one-star hostels in Madrid, it is not downtown but in a remote neighborhood. It takes almost an hour by subway and fifteen minutes by bus to get to the secluded industrial zone, and by nightfall it becomes desolate and soulless. There are no shops or parks nearby.

It’s been over six months since the first of the 52 political prisoners rounded up during the crackdown  of 2003 known as Primavera Negra (Black Spring) were freed by Fidel Castro and began arriving in Madrid. In that time, many of them have already started to question the government that gave them refuge. Some have even joined the ranks of the political opposition in Spain, and all have discovered that finding work in the country with the highest unemployment rate in the European Union is no easy matter.

Ricardo González, 60, is a journalist sentenced to 20 years in prison. He is already a veteran of Madrid, having been one of the first prisoners to land in the Spanish capital in early July 2010. After the initial exhilaration and first impressions—“eating a hot meal for the first time in seven years and waking up next to my wife”—he has spent anxious months waiting for his immigration papers and his work permit. “I want to practice journalism; it’s what I do best.”

The anxiety is shared by Julio César Gálvez, also a journalist, 66, sentenced to 14 years and in Madrid for months now. “For me, who has spent seven years in prison and nearly a year in solitary confinement, this hostel is a luxury.  But for my wife and my son, who had a house in Cuba, it’s not. We all sleep in one room and bathrooms are shared with other guests.”

Gálvez is wearing a short-sleeved shirt, “the same one I was wearing when I was arrested in 2003.” Neither he nor any of the others owned winter clothes when they arrived. For clothing and small everyday things, they depend on the generosity of acquaintances or Cuban exiles in Miami who send them money without ever meeting them. For the basics—housing, food, transportation passes, school tuition and supplies for their children—they depend on the generosity of the socialist government, led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

Up to 52 families are expected to arrive with at least three members per family. That represents a minimum of 200 people who will be provided with housing and living expenses—about $750 a month, depending on the size of the family. During the first months they are provided with accommodations in the Welcome or in shelters. Then they are relocated to apartments. Once they get a job and can support themselves, financial aid is cut. The entire process can take almost two years.

With the ailing Spanish economy, it is very likely they will always need some sort of assistance. In Spain, unemployment is around 20 percent.  Alejandro González Raga has been in Madrid for almost two years and still has no job. The same is true for all four Cuban journalists freed in 2008: “I’m 50 years old. In such a demanding job market, even young, Spanish workers are struggling. We don’t even have diplomas because we couldn’t take them out of Cuba. If I could, I’d go back to Cuba right now, even with Castro in power.”

Of the new arrivals that have been lucky enough to get work permits, not one has been able to find work.

Political Refugees or Just Immigrants?

Their status as immigrants in Spain has been a stumbling block for relations with the government that facilitated their release. The dissidents have rejected the migration formula offered to them, known as subsidiary international protection, a status granted to immigrants who flee zones of conflict but who do not suffer individual political persecution. Unlike asylum, this classification allows the refugee to return to his or her country of origin.

Almost half the dissidents have opted to halt the proceedings, applying instead for their status to be changed to political refugees. The chances of getting it, though, are slim. Spain grants barely 5 percent of requests for asylum, one of the lowest rates in the European Union.

For these political prisoners, their immigration status is a moral issue. “Half an hour before boarding the plane for Spain, I was told to sign a paper saying that I accepted the conditions offered by the Spanish government, and, if not, I would not be allowed to fly. But I’m not an economic emigrant, I was imprisoned for my political ideas,” says Alfredo Pulido, a 49-year-old dentist with a 14-year sentence, who has also decided to seek political asylum. His son, father and two nephews, with whom he traveled to Spain and now lives in the southern Spanish town of Jerez, all accepted the government’s offer and already have a work permit. Pulido has to wait; he doesn’t know how long, but he doesn’t care. “Why don’t they want to accept that we are political prisoners? Nowhere does it say that my sentence was commuted. I’m an outcast, a prisoner who cannot return to his country,” he complains.

For the Spanish Socialist government, what is important is not how they are classified, but the fact that they are free. Elena Valenciano, Secretary of International Policy and Cooperation of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), has been monitoring the release process. One of the latest members of the Spanish government to be received by Raúl Castro on a trip to Cuba last summer, she explains:  “It has been a process conducted in accordance with the Cuban government.  And Cuba says they have no prisoners of conscience. If here we treat them as political refugees, they’ll never again be allowed to return to the island.” But as a number of the former dissidents point out, even during her trip to the island, Valenciano failed to meet with any members of the opposition.

Nevertheless, she responds emphatically to critics who accuse Spain of bowing to the dictates of the Castro regime. The PSOE congresswoman defends the humanitarian nature of the mediation: “What was being sought with this prisoner release? Were we looking to orchestrate a political event against the Cuban government or to free the prisoners? Without dialogue with the Cuban government there would have been no release, short of us taking over the Cuban jails.”

Biting the Hand that Freed You

It is no secret that the newcomers do not like Spain’s foreign policy toward the Cuban government. Some, like Julio César Gálvez, charge that “[former foreign minister] Miguel Ángel Moratinos seems more like the minister of foreign affairs of Cuba than Spain.”

Others, like Pablo Pacheco, show more restraint. In his blog, “Vivir entre las rejas,” (Living behind Bars) the 40-year-old journalist refers to the belief that “Cuba has complied,” and that the Spanish government should facilitate the Castro regime’s inclusion into the international community. In the same piece, Pacheco asks: “Did the totalitarian Castro regime honor the defense of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?”

He writes from an apartment provided by the Spanish government in Málaga, in the south of the country, where he lives with his wife and where, finally, he can take his son to play soccer on weekends. Although no longer in prison, he has not changed his Internet profile; it reads: “Freelance journalist. Currently imprisoned in Canaleta, Ciego de Ávila.”  He explains: “If Cuba remains a prisoner, so do I.”

The seven years in prison have not dampened the desire to keep fighting. Soon after arriving in Madrid, several of the dissidents have sought out a political godfather who can channel their desire for change. They have found him in the main opposition party: the Partido Popular (PP). These prisoners of conscience have been welcomed by its leader, Mariano Rajoy, as well as by former PP president José María Aznar.

The PP radically opposes the Cuban regime. “We want deeds, not gestures, and deeds to us mean the unconditional release of all prisoners, the right of return to Cuba, that their sentences be commuted, that there be freedom to organize, and that the Red Cross be allowed to freely visit the country,” said Teófilo de Luis, member of the Partido Popular.

The conservative congressman spoke in the living room of an apartment in the affluent Salamanca neighborhood of Madrid. He is surrounded by a score of staunch supporters, including the hostess, Elena Larrinaga, the Cuban president of the Spanish Federation of Cuban Associations and the PP politician’s cousin, who has opened her home to Cuban dissidents in Madrid.

Among those attending the meeting are Normando Hernández and Alejandro González Raga. The two former prisoners have just returned from a trip to Brussels, at the invitation of the PP, to speak before the European Parliament on the situation in Cuban jails and to ask that the Common Policy—which conditions greater diplomatic opening to Cuba on improvements in human rights—not be suspended. “The Partido Popular is our ally. They know how you have to confront totalitarian regimes,” says Hernández.

Since coming to power in 2004, the Spanish socialist government has made extensive efforts to restore relations with the Cuban regime—relations that were bolted shut during the conservative government of Jose María Aznar. The low point was the period between 1996 and 2003, when the Cuban government refused to recognize the Spanish ambassador.

One of the last turning points came in 2010, when Spain exerted pressure to suppress the Common Policy on Cuba, which had been pushed by the Aznar administration in 1996. The current Spanish government believes that Cuba’s release of political prisoners deserves a gesture of openness on the part of the European community.

For Ángel Bermúdez, associate researcher at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, one cannot doubt the sincere concern of the Spanish government for the human rights situation in Cuba. But what drives the urgency for change in relations with the island is “a defense of the economic interest of Spain, which was left out in the cold during the Aznar administration.”

Faced with the position of the dissidents and the PP on the one hand, which calls for the total isolation of the regime, and the current position defended by Spain, on the other hand, which calls for the gradual restoration of relations, the EU has opted for a middle path. Bermúdez believes the decision of the Council of Foreign Ministers to maintain the Common Policy while asking the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, to demand steps leading toward a possible bilateral agreement is “timely and correct.” According to the analyst, this step “sends the dual message that the EU wants closer ties but is willing to wait as long as necessary until Cuba demonstrates clearly that the desire for reform is real and not just temporary.”

Not satisfied with the results obtained so far, the political prisoners have already requested an interview with Ms. Ashton and Trinidad Jiménez, Spain’s new foreign minister.

Despite cozying up to the opposition, their protectors still defend the dissidents’  right to rebel. Valenciano shrugs: “We have not worked for their release just so that they can think like us. We want them to be free and to express themselves freely.” The Spanish government says it is willing to continue to welcome all political prisoners released by the Castro regime “as long as they so desire.”

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