February 2016        

Letter from (near) Havana

Seán Joseph Clancy

In recent days more than seven thousand Cuban migrants stranded at the Nicaraguan border in Costa Rica and a further two thousand at the Costa Rican border in Panama have started to continue their overland and air journey to the United States.
     Their progress was halted when the Costa Rican authorities broke up a people-trafficking mafia that was part of a highly organised cartel of organised bands that had been facilitating the thousands of migrants.
     The reasons for both the “mass migration” (as the imperialist press call it, as part of the permanent spin on any story related to Cuba) and the particular route that became the first choice of most young “American Dream” aspirants from Cuba are—as indeed most things involving Cuba-US politics are—dynamic and complex but can be partially explained by the following factors.
     There are serious and profound economic problems in Cuba, most—but by no means all—directly attributable to the still fully functional and enforced illegal blockade of the country by every US government since that of John F. Kennedy.
     I don’t want to wander too far off the migration theme here, but it is important to note that the blockade is far more destructive, debilitating and spiteful than a mere prohibition on American companies trading with Cuba, and vice versa.
     For example, if a person in Ballydehob wants to sell lobster pots that they have produced using screws bought from Belarus that contain Cuban nickel to a buyer in the Outer Hebrides, their business, and all the other businesses involved, will be prohibited from trading with any American entity—or a subsidiary of any American entity not based in the United States—even in what would now be fifth, sixth etc. countries—and hit with an enforceable fine that can be in the multi-million-dollar range. An even more nasty instrument of aggression than it may at first appear . . .
     Back on message . . .
     The desire for economic betterment, combined with other internal social and economic realities, the same healthy interest in travel and exploration that young people everywhere experience, as well as the presence abroad of family members, somewhat explains what motivates the interest in migration.
     There is one other crucial and exceptional factor, a thorn in the side of Cuba-US relations since it was implemented and that has given an incentive to this type of dangerous, destructive, chaotic and uncontrolled exodus: the “Cuban Adjustment Act.”
     In a nutshell, this law, dating from the earliest years of the triumphant Cuban Revolution, guarantees any Cuban—regardless of past indiscretions of any type, and without any background investigation whatsoever—temporary residence and “refugee” status, with a very generous series of financial and social supports that include work permits, the right to decent (furnished) housing, a weekly cash stipend, food stamps and medical insurance for 366 days, at which point a permanent-resident card (green card) and a fast track to citizenship are guaranteed.
     It was always intended to undermine the will of the Cuban people, by fair means or foul. The criminal kidnapping and forced exile by the Catholic Church of more than fifteen thousand Cuban children in 1960–62 shares the same DNA as that of this law.
     The results of an offer such as this anywhere on earth today are not difficult to conceptualise. In the Latin American (including Cuban) context there are added historical and cultural dimensions that pre-date the Revolution.
     For decades US governments have only entered into talks about, or signed accords on, orderly and legal migration between the United States and Cuba under serious domestic pressure from events such as the Mariel crisis in 1980.
     For political gain, they have never subsequently kept to their commitments in this regard, causing severe pain, hardship, financial pressure and often the loss of a loved one to Cuban families separated by the Florida Straits and cruel US prohibitions.
     In much the same way as most of their global foreign policy and practice could never be remotely tolerated in times of peace, decent, respectful relations with Cuba could directly lead to the redundancy of hundreds living off a “blockade and regime-change industry” into which they pump—even today, despite all the media hype about progress—tens of millions of dollars annually.
     The “wet foot, dry foot” policy that arises from the manner in which the Cuban Adjustment Act is implemented (meaning that Cubans caught by the US Coastguard at sea are returned to Cuba but if they get one foot on dry land can collect their coveted prize) is the reason why the overland route became so popular of late.
     The propaganda value of images of Cubans “fleeing the regime” when in fact it was the same as taking a home-made boat to Holyhead, for the same reason that the sons and daughters of Erin have done throughout our history, was immense and well exploited by a US establishment still angry having been whipped into submission by Fidel at the Bay of Pigs.
     Since 2014 the process of leaving Cuba legally has been greatly simplified by reforms introduced by the government. Until the recent crisis resulted in a change, Cubans had not needed a visa to enter Ecuador. There was no “wet-foot” risk associated with their onward route through Colombia and Central America to the US border in Mexico, where a simple “I am fleeing political persecution” guaranteed “céad míle fáilte” from Uncle Sam himself.
     Because there was no illegality or visa irregularity associated with leaving Cuba, once their paperwork has been processed many of the “refugees” return to Cuba when their government food stamps are bought by racketeers and their payments go directly into bank accounts, for withdrawal when they return—just before their limit of one year and one day has expired—to collect their green cards.
     As they do, their paths cross those of hundreds of thousands of unfortunates from South and Central America who are genuinely persecuted and genuinely in dire need of refuge, for whom Uncle Sam shows no compassion in return for no political gain and only displaying a “No room” sign over the door of the Star-Spangled Banner Inn.
     The unwillingness of Obama to at least repeal the conditions (if not the body) of this law again speaks volumes about how deep his desire to normalise ties with Cuba really runs.
     Somewhat ironically, it is now those to his right, who see the manipulation of what was once a beloved instrument with which to beat the “Castro Brothers” (more right-wing media double-speak to imply a non-existent political dynasty) as having become beneficial to the Cuban revolutionary socialist socio-economic matrix, who are now most vocal in calling for the urgent reform, or repeal, of this law.
     Even they can see that describing those who enter and leave Cuba at will for holidays, business or family visits as “persecuted” is a bit of a stretch.
     They find themselves on the same side as their revolutionary counterparts who, after the lifting of the blockade and the return of the lands in the Guantánamo province in eastern Cuba, occupied by an illegal air base and concentration camp, consider the abolition of the Cuban Adjustment Act essential to progress on the road to normalisation.
     In the meantime—and in anticipation of change sooner rather than later—many more Cubans will find new ways to arrive with dry feet in the United States, half-heartedly pleading persecution, simply to avail of the offer while it lasts.

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