Cuba's struggle for emigres' rights



Cuba's struggle for emigres' rights

By Gilberto Firmat

The case of Elian Gonzalez has put the spotlight on US-Cuba immigration disputes and the United States' 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, Cold War legislation which grants all Cubans (except convicted felons) the right to remain in the US once they reach US jurisdiction.

The law, on its face, is absurd. If the US wants to take in as many people as wish to leave the island, then it would be logical to simply give a residence visa to any Cuban who wants to come. But the US does not do this.

It hands out visas — even simple tourist visas to come visit a relative — with an eye-dropper and only after a long and complicated procedure. The US routinely denies tourist visas to parents whose grown sons or daughters have chosen to come to the US, giving only one parent permission to visit, while the other remains in Cuba. This is to discourage people from taking advantage of the Cuban Adjustment Act, which legally would entitle the couple to stay in the US.

However, if someone steals a boat, or hijacks one at gunpoint, or organises a $1000-a-head alien smuggling operation, then the US government receives them with open arms as a "political refugee" fleeing "communism". This is done despite US immigration law provisions which prohibit granting legal status to people who have committed crimes.

Alien smuggling and entering the US without a visa are crimes and people from every country except Cuba are automatically barred from obtaining legal status if they come into the US illegally, even if they are otherwise entitled to become residents.

The Clinton administration claims that its hands are tied by the Cuban Adjustment Act but this is a lie. Simply by enforcing the law against illegal entry, it could put a stop to these insane crossings, in which at least 70 people lost their lives in 1999.

And if it wanted to encourage Cubans to settle here, it can just hand out tourist visas liberally in Havana, and have the immigration service meet the arrivals in Miami to hand out instructions on how to request permanent residency.

Blood on Clinton's hands

This is a totally cynical policy to keep the news media full of images of "boat people" and "rafters" who are "fleeing" from a horrible Communist dictatorship. The blood of hundreds of Cubans who have died trying to cross the Florida straits is on the hands of President Bill Clinton and his predecessors.

Cuba's policy on emigration has always been absolutely clear: the building of socialism is a task for free men and women. Anyone who wishes to leave, whether it be for political, economic or family reasons, is free to do so.

What's more, the revolutionary government has waged battle after battle to force Washington to accept through safe and legal means the migration it constantly encourages. If there are so many Cubans in Miami it is because President Fidel Castro has pushed and even trapped the US government into accepting them, and not at all because the US government has facilitated their arrival.

Since the first days of the Cuban Revolution, the US has used immigration as a club against it. Under the Eisenhower administration, the US opened its arms wide to Cuban capitalists, managers, technicians and professionals, confidently predicting that Cuba would quickly collapse.

After two years of this policy, the US tried a different tack. It broke diplomatic relations with Cuba and shut down all the consulates. It now became impossible to go to the US from Cuba, because only consulates could issue visas. The only other option was the "visa waiver", a document as prized (among some circles) and hard to obtain as the legendary Nazi "letters of transit" in the movie Casablanca.

Operation Peter Pan

One little-known reason for the explosion of outrage in Cuba against the kidnapping of Elian Gonzalez is that he is not the first Cuban child the US government has separated from his family. In the early 1960s, through the kind offices of the Catholic Church in Cuba and the US, the CIA carried out "Operation Peter Pan", in which nearly 15,000 children were brought to the US without their parents and basically given to anyone who would have them.

By then, the US had developed the basic line of attack it has used every since — systematically encouraging people to leave Cuba and systematically refusing them visas to do so. The Kennedy administration decided to vary this policy a little to hand out "visa waivers" for all children whose parents wanted to send them to the US, but not for the parents.

To encourage the parents to send their children, a handbill was printed up purporting to reprint a draft law that had been "removed from the office of the [Cuban] Prime Minister", titled "Law on the Nationalization of Children". This fabricated "law" stated that once children were three, parents were to hand them over to state-run child-care centres which would become the children's guardians.

Given the colonial mentality of Cuba's privileged layers, it seemed credible enough to them at the height of the Cold War. If the communists could do something as unthinkable as expropriating the all-powerful US corporations in Cuba, they could do anything. There were even rumours that the children would be ground into canned sausages and sent to the Soviet Union in exchange for Soviet oil!

The irony is that the charge the CIA fabricated against Cuba was, in fact, what the US was working towards, taking the children away from their parents and making them wards of a quasi-governmental organisation, the CIA's Catholic Charities operation.

Many Peter Pan children were taken in by Cuban relatives or friends, others by well-meaning US couples. Others were warehoused in places that can only be described as concentration camps, the most notorious of which was Matacumbe in south Florida.

Freedom to emigrate

Operation Peter Pan was the beginning of the Cuban Revolution's struggle to force the US to facilitate the emigration of people from Cuba to the US.

In 1965 or so, "someone" in Miami announced they would take a boat to Cuba to pick up relatives whose children were in the US. The revolutionary government agreed and designated the port of Camarioca for the pick-ups.

That is how the Johnson administration was forced to negotiate with Cuba, and out of that negotiation came the so-called freedom flights, which lasted into the early '70s. Two or three times a week, the US government chartered aeroplanes to go to Cuba to bring to Miami parents, and eventually other relatives, of Cubans already in the US.

It is worth thinking about what Castro did. By 1965, the revolution was fairly consolidated. The bandit bands in some rural areas and the urban CIA networks had been rolled up. The opponents of the revolution had been crushed and those who were disaffected were under the watchful eye of the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution and an ever more efficient intelligence service.

Under those circumstances, and given the US attitude, the revolution could well have decided to force these tens of thousands of doctors, technicians, professionals, administrators and so on to stay and work for the revolution. Instead, Castro used all his political skill to outwit Johnson and force open the door to the US so that the families of all these people who hated the revolution could be reunited and could plot against it with impunity from Miami.

At a time when others were building Berlin Walls and barbed wire fences to prevent people from leaving, Cuba was fighting so that its dissidents could walk out the door. This is the policy Cuba has always followed.

In 1973, the US unilaterally suspended the flights and then, under the Carter administration, it lifted many of the prohibitions on trips to Cuba. Thousands of Cubans from Miami suddenly swarmed over the island with stories about how great life was in the US.

As the years went by, pressure from people who wanted to emigrate mounted and, although the two countries exchanged "interest sections" (low level diplomatic missions), the US issued only a couple of hundred visas, instead of the 20,000 allowed by law.

This led to incidents where people who were not dissidents or political activists, but mostly disaffected young men, would crash into embassies — literally, for example with a hijacked truck — and demand asylum. Cuba warned the Latin American missions that what they were doing by granting asylum was to encourage these attacks, but to no avail.

Finally, in a bus-ramming of the Peruvian embassy, a young Cuban guard was killed. The revolutionary government withdrew its protective cordon around the embassy and soon it was overrun with more than a thousand would-be emigres.

The stand-off lasted for days. Peru begged the Cuban government to allow it to fly these people out and restore the guards around the embassy. The US government mounted a huge propaganda campaign against Cuba, which made it clear that it was Washington, not Lima, behind the provocation.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Cuba expressed their outrage at the CIA-sponsored embassy crashing by holding "Marches of the fighting people.".

Then someone in Miami remembered the Camarioca boat-lift, and announced that they would take a boat and offer to pick up the embassy people. The Cuban government said: Fine, if that's why you're coming, we've got no objection to you picking up not just the people at the embassy, but anyone else who wants to go. The storm Washington had provoked inevitably wound up hitting its shores. And the Mariel boat-lift began.

By the end, more than 100,000 people had left Cuba. The US which put an end to the boat-lift by threatening confiscation of boats used in further operations.


In the early '90s, under the impact of the economic crisis caused by the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the pressure to emigrate from Cuba grew again. The new form this took was the hijacking of boats.

Cuba pleaded with the US government not to accept violent hijackers, or at least to punish them once ashore. Washington haughtily ignored the Cuban pleas, instead hailing every new arrival to create even more incidents.

Inevitably, a Cuban border patrol guard was killed and the revolutionary government reacted as it had in the case of the Peruvian embassy. The government announced that it would no longer try to prevent individuals from building rafts to get to the US, thereby setting off the "rafter" crisis.

This time, because the rafts were being built in Cuba by Cubans, there was no practical way for the US to put an end to the wave of emigration except by coming to an agreement with the Cuban government.

Cuba sought two essential goals in the negotiation. The first was to get the US to stop encouraging illegal emigration by granting legal status to those who made it to Florida. The second was to get the US to facilitate large-scale, legal emigration. Cuba largely succeeded on both counts.

First, the US agreed to turn back all illegal immigrants caught at sea. (By and large, rafters did not count on making it to Florida, only to the limit of Cuba's territorial waters where a US Coast Guard cutter could pick them up, having been notified by relatives or friends in Miami of the projected date of the voyage).

And the US agreed to issue the legal maximum number of visas, 20,000, every year, and even found a loophole to double that figure for the first couple of years, holding a lottery if not enough people with close relatives in the US applied.

That accord has come under increasing strain in the past year due to the emergence of organised smuggling and changes in US practices. The smugglers are often those involved in the drug trade. They charge $1000 or more a head and use very fast speedboats. The goal now is to get the emigres to dry land in Florida so the Cuban Adjustment Act will apply to them.

This new element led to highly publicised clashes on the high seas and near shore between the smugglers and the coast guard. After an incident in 1999 in which Coast Guard personnel capsized a boat, causing several people to drown within range of TV cameras, the Coast Guard seems to have largely abandoned its interdiction efforts.

At the same time, the US has cut back the issuing of residence visas from 40,000 to 20,000. Because those with close relatives in the US get preference, the number of visas now available to others is relatively small.

That's why the right-wing emigre groups in Miami seized on Elian's case and transformed the boy into a poster child for illegal immigration. That's the reason for the highly publicised birthday party, the trip to Disney World, the shower of gifts, including the heavy gold chain Elian is made to wear, an appropriate symbol of his enslavement.

US lies

Camarioca, Mariel and the rafter crisis which led to the current immigration accords represent major battles waged by the revolution to force the US to accept responsibility for the results of its policy of constantly encouraging emigration. Under the current accords, the US is committed to granting at least 20,000 visas for permanent residency a year, and to discouraging illegal immigration by sending those who try to cross by boat back to Cuba.

This is a distasteful issue for many people sympathetic to Cuba who do not know the facts. Given the constant barrage of imperialist propaganda, it is hard to explain to people that it is the Cuban government that has fought for the right of Cubans to emigrate and the US government that has stood in the way. Everyone has seen the pictures of the rafts, and a picture is worth a thousand words. It is our job to tell people that every one of those words is a lie.

As to why so many people would want to emigrate, the real wonder is that so many choose to stay. In addition to the fact that some people are disaffected with the revolution, there simply is no question that the US has a vastly higher standard of living.

Even without the powerful magnet of full legal status, there are millions of undocumented immigrants from Mexico, the Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries in the US. If the US were to treat other immigrants as it does Cubans, immediately giving them full legal status, the number of emigres would be in the tens of millions overnight.