Jailed for nothing in 'the land of the free'


The Cuban Excludables. The Cutting Edge
Tuesday, September 24, 8.30pm (8 SA)
Previewed by Jill Hickson

This is a very moving portrayal of human rights abuses in the United States against Cuban immigrants who were among those in the Mariel boat lift of 1980. The exodus of 125,000 people on boats was the result of US government policy, which for decades had refused entry to all Cubans, even those with relatives living in Miami. By barring entry through legal channels, the policy encouraged the illegal entry of Cubans by raft and boat.

The Cuban Excludables focuses on the plight facing thousands of these men who have been confined to US prisons for years, most convicted of no crime other than choosing to live in the United States and being black and poor.

The program follows a group of detainees being deported to Cuba. They tell their stories, relating the dehumanising treatment they experienced at the hands of the US prison system, and talk about the agony of never seeing their families again. After arriving handcuffed and shackled in Cuba, the deportees are taken to a centre and processed. Nearly all are released within a month and resettled with their families in Cuba. They are never to return to the US.

More than 5000 Cuban men are held in US prisons. Many were convicted of crimes they so small that there is no justification for putting them in prison for five years. One was convicted of stealing $43, another for having a cheque bounce. Some men finished short sentences but remained in prison for a further six years.

These men are being held under the Immigration Law, which labels them as detainees awaiting deportation to Cuba. At the hands of the US prison system they have experienced bashings, verbal and physical abuse, being tied and chained for long periods, the use of drugs which turned prisoners into vegetables, even killings.

The documentary collects evidence through a range of interviews from all sides of the situation: a US judge, a number of the Cuban men still being detained, detainees' families in the US and in Cuba, the warden of a prison where there are Cuban detainees.

The Atlanta prison where many Cubans are held exploded in November 1987, when prisoners took 89 hostages and held the prison for 12 days. After negotiations with authorities, the Cubans won the release of 60% of the "excludables" in the US and the opening of negotiations with Cuba for deportations. In Alabama in August 1991, Cuban prisoners took over jail for nine days and forced a reopening of the deportation program, which had stalled for two years.

Today, there are still Cubans held in US prisons for no crime. Those exiled to Cuba find it hard to readjust to Cuban life; most want to return to their families in the US.

All found their experience hard to understand. Most had not had experience of drugs and the life of drug dealing which surrounds poor, black neighbourhoods in the US, nor had they experienced the racist society they found themselves victims of. While there is no examination of the broader political issues involved in the Cuba-US conflict, the film gathers plenty of evidence to place the responsibility for the situation of these Cubans firmly on the shoulders of the US government.