Cuba and the New Asylum Seekers



Following a number of recent defections by high-level diplomats, artists and a nuclear physicist (all prominent citizens who enjoyed uncommon privileges in Cuba), a series of attempts to seek asylum in foreign embassies in Havana took place in July 1990. These events renewed international interest in Cuba's human rights situation and the resilience of Cuba's Communist regime, which sharply contrasts with its Eastern European counterparts.

Various reports indicate that within a matter of days, some 50 people in two "waves" entered the grounds of five European embassies and ambassadors' residences. Those in the first wave apparently sought asylum while those in the second were widely suspected of working as agents of the Cuban government (The Washington Post 25 July 1990, A1; The Los Angeles Times 24 July 1990, A4). Information available is almost completely based on the accounts of diplomats present at the events as all of the asylum seekers either surrendered to authorities or left the diplomatic facilities after receiving assurances from the Cuban government that there would be no reprisals for their asylum bids. During these events, the Cuban government had the military surround the embassies and residences, stating that it would not permit any of those taking shelter in the embassies to leave Cuba (Reuters 5 Sept. 1990; The Washington Post 25 July 1990).

The precise motivation behind the recent asylum attempts is difficult to ascertain. Some diplomats are reported as having said, in reference to the first wave, that "most of the refugees [were] working-class Cubans who [were] dissatisfied with their country's lacklustre economy" (The Christian Science Monitor 26 July 1990, 3). Another theory advanced by a Western diplomat suggests that both waves contained a number of people working with the Interior Ministry who posed as asylum seekers in an effort to infiltrate the foreign embassies. The latter could have been part of a plan to pre-empt a major asylum crisis such as the recent one in Albania; or, the events in the Czechoslovakian embassy may have been instigated as part of a plan to discredit Vaclav Havel, who has recently become an outspoken critic of Fidel Castro (The Los Angeles Times 24 July 1990, A4; The Washington Post 25 July 1990, A1). Cubans attempting to escape from Cuba risk harsh penalties for illegal departure, perhaps because those who try to emigrate through official procedures face a number of extra-legal reprisals such as loss of employment or denial of higher education (Americas Watch Jan. 1989, 42-43).


The seven-week crisis began on 9 July 1990, when five members of the dissident group Asociación Pro-Arte Libre (APAL, Pro-Free Art Association) entered the Embassy of Czechoslovakia. The group was apparently seeking visas and support from the Czech government for a tour of Eastern Europe in order to witness the changes taking place there. On 16 July, a second group of Cubans entered the same grounds, took the first group and a number of Czech diplomats hostage, and threatened to destroy the embassy (Latin American Weekly Report 26 July 1990, 1).

Other individuals sought asylum at the Embassies of Switzerland, Belgium and Spain, and at the residence of the Italian ambassador. An additional group seeking asylum entered the residence of the ambassador of Czechoslovakia. Cuban security forces entered and seized this group. Security forces also entered the grounds of the Embassy of Spain, violating diplomatic immunity, and seized a Cuban as he approached the building in an apparent attempt to seek asylum (Latin American Weekly Report 26 July 1990, 1).

Tensions increased on 21 July, when a new group of alleged asylum-seekers gained entry to the Embassy of Spain, despite tight Cuban security surrounding it. One Spanish diplomat questioned how these asylum seekers had been able to pass unscathed through the security forces' blockade and implied that the new asylum seekers may have been planted by the Cuban authorities (Latin American Weekly Report 2 Aug. 1990, 11; The Washington Post 25 July 1990). Members of this group quickly surrendered to authorities and talked freely to the state-run media, while those in the initial group gave up their bid for asylum reluctantly (Ibid.). Spanish officials reportedly stated, referring to the group that surrendered last, that "when genuine asylum-seekers left, some police agents followed" (The New York Times 12 Sept. 1990, A7).

The asylum attempt at the Embassy of Spain had diplomatic and economic impacts: in violating diplomatic immunity, Fidel Castro effectively ended all cooperation with Spain, one of the few remaining European countries with economic ties to Cuba. Castro later offered to mend the diplomatic rift with Spain, and further announced that all those applying for emigration through regular channels and obtaining a foreign visa would be allowed to leave, with the exception of those who had sought asylum in foreign embassies (The New York Times 12 Sept. 1990, A7). The Spanish government has suggested that the incident may have a long-lasting negative effect on its relationship with Cuba (Ibid.).

3.        BACKGROUND

The recent defections and asylum attempts have occurred within the context of the changes in Eastern Europe and mounting economic pressures on Cuba, mostly from its former allies. However, the widespread changes sweeping the Communist world have so far had mild effects on the island of Cuba. Having rejected the Soviet-style perestroika, glasnost and a multi-party system, Fidel Castro has been reorganizing the country to meet what he has claimed could be a threat to the revolution larger than the Bay of Pigs invasion (The Washington Post 25 July 1990, A1; The Economist 28 July 1990, 31, 32).

Instead of perestroika-like reforms, the process of rectificación or correction of mistakes launched in the mid-1980s was mainly intended to solve Cuba's economic problems. At the same time, the process resisted jeopardizing the social and political principles of the revolution (Bulletin of Latin American Research 1989, 70, 71). For example, limited marketing of products by farmers and the revival of the construction microbrigades (groups of employees who temporarily switched their jobs to build badly-needed homes and infrastructure for residential and related projects) were expected to revive the idealism required to sustain the revolution. However, the reforms fell short of making significant political changes at a time when a new idealism began to spread throughout socialist countries (Ibid.).

News of liberalization in Eastern Europe and reforms in the Third World countries allied with the USSR may have encouraged Cuba's incipient human rights organizations and religious groups, emboldening their criticism and activities in the last two years. Much of the discontent within the population and the armed forces may be attributed to Cuba's military ventures overseas, particularly in Angola and Ethiopia. Despite some military victories against South African forces, more than a decade of armed intervention in Angola has had an economic and human cost that has affected numerous Cuban families. According to one dissident Cuban general, other officers have perceived the military campaign in Angola as a futile exercise which has caused some 10,000 Cuban casualties (The Cuban-American National Foundation 1987, 11, 12). Some reports state that Fidel Castro has purged the Cuban army and the Interior Ministry to eliminate possible dissent in an apparent anti-corruption drive. The widely-reported execution of General Ochoa, a war hero from Angola, and other high-ranking military officers for alleged participation in drug-trafficking may also have had political motives (Latin American Regional Report 24 Aug. 1989, 1-2, 18 Sept. 1989, 2).

In Cuba, a single-party state, some political grievances have been channelled through the relative safety of religious institutions. Catholic Bishops reportedly sent the government petitions on social and political reform, while Archbishops met with Castro, and Catholic laymen participated in illegal human rights organizations. The increased tolerance of religious practice seen in the 1980s, resulting from what some have termed a "benign neglect" by the government, culminated in Cuba's invitation to the Pope to visit in 1989. However, the aperture closed abruptly in early 1990 with a speech by Fidel Castro strongly criticizing the Church, an indefinite postponement of the Pope's visit and a ban on all religious processions (Americas Watch 8 June 1990, Latinamerica Press 21 June 1990, 2).

Since 1988, an increasing number of members of human rights, environmental and opposition groups have been arrested and jailed (Amnesty International Dec. 1989; Americas Watch Mar. 1989). Although the Cuban human rights movement is composed of small groups with relatively little clout, these groups have been one of the main sources of non-government information available to the outside world and their repression has had an impact on the availability of credible information on the human rights situation in the country (Americas Watch 26 Apr. 1990, 8 June 1990).


The threat to the Cuban regime's stability has been acknowledged by Castro, who has rhetorically lashed back at the Eastern European rejection of Marxism-Leninism and declared that "socialism or death" are Cuba's only options (The Globe and Mail 28 July 1990, D3). Repression of dissent has apparently extended to the security forces and the Communist Party itself: at least four members of the Communist Party Youth (UJC) have been arrested for voicing criticism of the government at a UJC meeting (Americas WatchMar. 1989); and a major purge of high-level members of the Ministry of the Interior and the Communist Party has been reported, with younger and more faithful followers of Fidel Castro replacing older figures in the Politburo, Secretariat and Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (Latin American Regional Report 5 Apr. 1990, 2).

The greatest threat to Cuba and the Castro government may be economic. Cuba's communist regime -- in contrast to those of Eastern Europe -- was the result of a domestic revolution and strengthened by a constant threat from the United States and by social services generally unavailable elsewhere in Latin America. However, many of these services, possible only with significant Soviet aid, may have been taken for granted by younger Cubans (The Christian Science Monitor 10 July 1990, 3; The Economist 28 July 1990, 31-32). Basic foodstuffs, money and oil have failed to arrive from the East Bloc as in previous times, and the island's exports, which were formerly sold to Communist countries at non-world market prices, have lately found few buyers (The Economist 28 July 1990, 31-32; Latin American Regional Report 1 Mar. 1990, 1).

The resulting crisis has forced the Cuban government to enact drastic measures whose ultimate social impact remains to be seen. Rations of food and products available to the population have been reduced, transport services have been cut and the civil service is about to be cut by 50 percent, with many bureaucrats being relocated to farm and factory jobs (The Ottawa Citizen 15 Oct. 1990, D12). As examples of this austerity plan, animals are being reintroduced as a means of transport and locomotion, and plans to promote the use of bicycles are underway (Le Devoir 21 Sept. 1990).

Several recent political changes have also been made. The number of Communist Party cadres has been reduced, possibly to facilitate control and decision making. Also, local councils which were actively governing only the countryside will soon begin operating in Havana's neighbourhoods (Latinamerica Press 4 Oct. 1990). The introduction of ninety-three area councils in the capital will give district delegates increased authority, including the power to make decisions and remove government officials (Ibid.). These councils will add to a system of neighbourhood or block committees (CDRs - Committees for the Defence of the Revolution) established in the 1960s to monitor the activities of the population for anti-revolutionary attitudes or behaviour (Americas Watch Jan. 1989, 59-63).

Former allies, particularly those from Eastern Europe, have turned their backs on Cuba and in some cases have even joined in the international criticism of the Latin American regime. Various reports, however, indicate Cuba has renewed ties with North Korea, China and Albania. In recent months, high-level Cuban officials have toured these countries and, in some cases, signed cooperative trade agreements.

Whether Fidel Castro's regime will endure the momentous changes being experienced throughout the world remains to be determined. Deeply-rooted anti-imperialistic sentiments resulting from centuries of domination, first by Spain and then by the United States, still remain. In addition, the strong, eloquent personality of an undisputed leader combined with intense political control refined for over thirty years, may prove to be formidable obstacles to a revolution within a revolution.

5.                BIBLIOGRAPHY

Americas Watch. January 1989. Human Rights in Cuba. Washington: Americas Watch Committee.

Americas Watch. March 1989. Jailing the Human Rights Movement. Washington: Americas Watch Committee.

Americas Watch. 26 April 1990 . Telephone Interview.

Americas Watch. 8 June 1990 . Telephone Interview .

Amnesty International. December 1989. (AI Index: AMR 25/20/89). "Cuba: Political Imprisonment: a Summary of Recent Concerns."

Bulletin of Latin American Research [Oxford]. 1989. Mathéy, K. "Recent Trends in Cuban Housing Policies and the Revival of the Microbrigade Movement."

The Christian Science Monitor [Boston]. 30 July 1990. "Castro Faces Deeper Economic Crisis."

The Christian Science Monitor. 26 July 1990. White, M. "Cuba Digs in Heels on Refugees."

The Christian Science Monitor. 10 July 1990. White, M. "Cuba's Young Dropouts Abandon Socialism."

The Cuban-American National Foundation. 1987. General Del Pino Speaks. Washington: The Cuban-American National Foundation.

Le Devoir [Montréal]. 21 September 1990. "L'austérité se resserre à Cuba."

The Economist [London]. 28 July 1990. "The Self-Laceration of Cuba."

The Globe and Mail [Toronto]. 2 August 1990. Rodriguez, C. "Shaking Castro's Bedsprings."

The Globe and Mail. 28 July 1990. Szulc, T. "Socialism or Death?"

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Latinamerica Press. 21 June 1990. "Church: Cuba."

Latin American Regional Report: Caribbean Report. 5 April 1990. "Rectification Will Not Be Abandoned.

Latin American Regional Report: Caribbean Report. 1 March 1990. "Cuba Feeling Effects of Perestroika."

Latin American Regional Report: Caribbean Report. 18 September 1989. "Abrantes Gets Stiff Prison Sentence."

Latin American Regional Report: Caribbean Report. 24 August 1989. "Drugs Scandal Gives Castro Excuse for Purge of Dissidents and `Plotters'."

Latin American Regional Report: Caribbean Report. 26 July 1989. "Purge Continues After Executions."

Latin American Weekly Report [London]. 2 August 1990. "Which are the Real Asylum-Seekers?"

Latin American Weekly Report. 26 July 1990. "Eastern European Trends Finally Reach Cuba, but Take a Few Kinks en Route."

The Los Angeles Times. 24 July 1990. Schanche, D. "Cuba Using Spies to Foil Refugee Exits."

The New York Times. 12 September 1990. Riding, A. "Spanish Asylum Battle Ends Bitterly."

The Ottawa Citizen. 15 October 1990. Oppenheimer, A. "Cuba Plans to Chop Swollen Bureaucracy."

Reuters. 5 September 1990. Powers, M. "Exit of Cubans Likely to Signal End to Asylum Bids."

Reuters. 27 July 1990. "Cubans with Visas May Leave Castro Says." (NEXIS)

The Washington Post. 25 July 1990. Hockstader, L. "Embassy Confrontations Further Isolate Castro; Rash of Asylum Seekers Indicates Rising Discontent in Cuba."

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