After 23 years, seven months and 11 days, Arturo Suarez was considered the longest-serving political prisoner in Cuba. His first sentence came in the 1980s for painting anti-Castro messages on walls; his last, of 30 years, was handed down after he hijacked a plane in a bid to flee the island.
From his cell, Suarez became a reputed defender of human rights who detailed the abuses suffered by prisoners in the regime’s prisons. In 1998, Pope John Paul II asked that Suarez—who is the son of one of the Ladies in White, the all-female opposition movement made up of wives and other relatives of jailed dissidents—be released.
He eventually was, under an agreement between Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s Socialist Party (PSOE) government and Cuba, brokered through the Catholic Church. In 2010 and 2011, 115 prisoners and 650 family members were released into Spanish custody. The work of then-Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and the cardinal of Havana, Jaime Ortega, was hailed as a victory for diplomacy and human rights. The freed prisoners landed in Spain to a wall of camera flashes.
Negative side of humanitarian action
Three years on, however, and the outcome of the operation is a metaphor for the negative side of humanitarian action: Good intentions, deficient planning, too many unforeseen factors and few resources. The eviction of Gilberto Martinez in Alicante on May 7 has placed the Cuban dissidents in the spotlight once again. Martinez, who says he was sentenced to three years for “making friends with opposition members,” could not pay his rent after his state benefit of 595 euros and 400 euros from the Red Cross were both withdrawn. “They brought us to Spain deceitfully; they promised us work, a home and aid, but we have nothing,” he says.
His children, aged eight, 15 and 22, live with another Cuban family who are facing eviction on May 26. “If they had told me in Cuba about the crisis Spain is going through, I would have stayed there,” Martinez adds.
Because of the huge media interest, the Cubans were fast-tracked through the regularization process when they first arrived, automatically receiving residency and work permits. But in the following 18 months—the period of state aid laid out in the agreement signed by the government and the refugees—interest and money, dried up.
The subsidies to the NGOs managing the program ended at the same time as the Popular Party government of Mariano Rajoy came to power. The most vulnerable families, those with members who are sick or single parents, have received state aid over the last three years. The rest have been treated as “normal emigrants,” according to the Labor Ministry. Sources at the Foreign Ministry say that Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s government was overly optimistic in bringing so many family members over and not laying out the reality of the situation in Spain.
To urge the Popular Party government to meet its inherited responsibilities, 10 Cubans have been sleeping outside the Foreign Ministry in shifts for over a year.
“We arrived naked, in prison clothes,” says Miguel Fernandez, who arrived in Madrid with his wife and then lived in a Red Cross shelter in Malaga. He says the protest stems from the government’s failure to invest money from the EU Fund for Refugees set aside for the dissidents. But according to the Labor Ministry that money was destined for all refugees in Spain, and there was no special arrangement with Brussels regarding the Cubans. “Our integration was apparently organized, but then we come up against this,” says Fernandez. “They now want us to go back, but we know how to resist.”
Another of the sit-in protesters is the son of Alberto Santiago Dubouchet. The former editor of news agency Habana Press hanged himself in his Las Palmas home in April 2012 after suffering a long depression. The exiles do not want to accuse the government of being responsible for Dubouchet’s death—he had been destroyed by prison—but they note the journalist died without a single euro to his name. He was also desperate for a state grant to visit his children in Madrid.
One of the most striking peculiarities of the collective is its heterogeneity. Not because it includes doctors and laborers, but more because members of the Group of 75 rub shoulders with grafters and hard cases with few political convictions. The reasons for their internment are sometimes vague: Miguel Gonzalez prefers not to say why he spent five years in jail. “The Castros are clever,” says another exile, who prefers not to give his name. “They took advantage of the PSOE’s failure to filter the prisoners and mixed cabbage with lettuce.”
Although the government has no exact figures, many of the exiles have left Spain, mostly for the U.S. where relatives have helped with the red tape. Others have tried to enter via the border with Mexico. “We tried on March 3 but they turned us away and we had to come back to Spain,” says Miguel Fernandez.
While the protesters in Madrid seek government help to leave the country, others take a more conciliatory stance: “We have been in Spain for two-and-a-half years: Those who wish to integrate have had time,” says one of the former prisoners. “Spain is in the middle of a terrible crisis and you can’t hold on to promises.”
Throughout the entire flight to Spain, Arturo Suarez did not let go of his baby child, who he had only seen once before. Now he lives in Madrid with aid from the regional government. “I have an income of 534 euros and some help from other families, but I am grateful. I came here from a tyranny. You have to adjust and wait. Unpacking boxes, working as a gardener, it’s all the same to me,” he says. He is eagerly awaiting the birth of his second child, but makes no attempt to hide the fact that what the Castro regime failed to achieve the years, circumstance and his traveling companions have done: “Here, politically, we do nothing. I was a human rights leader, but now my priority is my family.”