Sunday, 12 June 2011

Cuban mercenaries whine in Spain

Cuban political prisoners in Spain threaten hunger strike
Source: Sacramento Bee, 28 May 2011.

Three former Cuban political prisoners and 15 relatives living in northern Spain are threatening a hunger strike unless authorities resolve the "chaotic" conditions of their exile, complaining that they fall short of the welcome promised by the Spanish government.

"They are treating us like simple immigrants," said Erick Caballero, one of the more than 100 political prisoners freed by Cuba during the past year after they agreed to go directly from jail to the Havana airport and flights to Madrid.

Spain's Socialist government promised a broad range of benefits to the former prisoners and nearly 900 of their relatives, but many have complained that they were all but abandoned once they landed in Madrid. The latest complaints came from Caballero, who arrived April 8 along with two other former political prisoners, 15 other adults and six children. He said they were sent to a Spanish Red Cross migrant reception center in Torrelavega, in the northern province of Cantabria.

Caballero said he and the 17 other adults will launch a hunger strike if authorities cannot resolve their complaints. "Their care for us has been chaotic," he said by telephone. He said health care has been difficult - a woman who was treated for cancer in Cuba and now has pains could not get a doctor's appointment until next year - and some of the new arrivals have not been able to attend job seminars because there's no money for transportation. The promised pocket money of 49 Euros a month, about $70, was not delivered until last week, Caballero said. The 177 Euros promised for clothing has been delivered to only some of the newly arrived Cubans.

The food at the refugee center, a converted maternity hospital, has been awful and its activities are highly regimented, he said. "I came out of a high-security prison, and here they have a schedule for everything - bathe, eat, go out, watch television," Caballero said.

McClatchy Newspapers' efforts to speak with the director of the refugee center were unsuccessful, but Spanish government officials have previously acknowledged delays and other problems with benefits for the Cuban arrivals, and blamed the issues on the country's economic crisis. The unemployment rate stands at more than 20 percent.

Caballero was arrested in 2005 and sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison on charges of "enemy propaganda" and damaging state property. He left Cuba on the chartered airplane that flew the last of the freed political prisoners and their relatives - about 200 people in all - to Spain.

The release was part of an agreement by the Raul Castro government, announced by the Cuban Catholic Church last summer, to free a large number of political prisoners. The Spanish government agreed to take in any prisoners and relatives who wanted to leave the island. Caballero said Spanish authorities in Cuba gave each of the former prisoners and relatives a long document titled Process for Receiving and Socially Integrating Persons Seeking International Protection, which laid out the government's promises and the exiles' duties.

Each family was then assigned to one of three non-government organizations that provide benefits to refugees - the Spanish Red Cross, the Spanish Catholic Association Commission for Migration and the Spanish Commission for Help to Refugees. But the head of the Red Cross migrant center in Torrelavega did not know about the government benefits, Caballero said, until he showed her the document. Her center does not have the resources to meet the needs, he

Complaints from previous Cuban arrivals had become so prevalent that when Caballero's jetliner landed in Madrid, his group was kept away from waiting reporters and put on buses that took them to refugee reception centers, most of them far from the Spanish capital. Former political prisoner Nestor Rodriguez Lobaina said he wound up in a Red Cross shelter on the outskirts of Malaga. He said he ran out of toothpaste and deodorant last week and that he's been given no money for a haircut since his arrival.

Rodriguez said he thanked the Spanish government for taking him and his family out of Cuba and did not want to appear ungrateful, but added that since arriving he has faced "bureaucratic hell."

"If the Spanish government did not have the conditions, because it faces an economic crisis, I don't understand why it made a deal with the Cuban dictatorship to send 1,000 persons to a place where there are no jobs," he said.