Cuba's Refugees

Brass Tacks

The old American Embassy in Havana is a good walk from the center of town, down a long hill bordered by paint-peeling houses. Nine years ago, before Fidel Castro's sudden revolution, American tourists used to take a taxi up the hill into Cuba's gleaming capital. Today, there is almost no traffic on that road. The real center of power is elsewhere. The slit-windowed, modern United States Embassy on the seafront no longer dictates the politics and the economics of this island. The scrupulously neutral Swiss now handle American interests in Cuba, and that means handling the unceasing trickle of Cubans who have had enough of Fidel's revolutionary politics, pressures and problems. They want out.

You can go by the old American Embassy any day, and there will be a group of 40 or 60 people clustered outside the entrance to the shuttered up building. "We are waiting to get out to liberty!" says one middle-aged Negro, holding her baby. Inside the embassy, they wait patiently in a dimly lit room while four Swiss officials talk quietly as they go over their papers. It is along process. Many have been waiting more than two years.

No one knows precisely how many Cubans have left their country, but the figure is somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000. Most of them have gone to Venezuela, Argentina, and Spain, and of course, the United States, which has accepted some 300,000 since 1959. And more keep coming. The Cuban government admits that 200,000 of its 7 million citizens still residing there have applied to leave. The U.S. State Department says a million, though the latter figure is preposterously high.

There are restrictions placed on who may apply to leave. For instance, no male between the ages of 15 and 27 may go because of "military service obligations." This regulation also holds many older Cubans back because they do not wish to leave their children. No technicians may leave. Once a person employed by the state applies for an exit visa he loses his job. The long wait--without work--deters many. When they do leave, all their property is forfeited to the government. And the sign at Veradero Airport reminds those who step aboard their planes that "He who forsakes the fatherland will never again be permitted to return."

For the past two years, the United States government has been operating a Relative-to-Relative Airlift. Those with closest relatives outside the country get top priority on the list. This is the so-called "Freedom Shuttle." Twice a day, five day a week, the National Airlines DC-7 takes off for Miami. About 4,000 Cubans arrive in the U.S. on this plane each month.


Most exiles who land at Miami never see that city. It is the official policy of the U.S. government to relocate them elsewhere in the States. Outside of Miami, there are big exile communities in New York City, New Jersey, California, Pennsylvania, and even Iowa.

The government cooperates with private charity organizations, principally the U.S. Catholic Conference, to help ease the transition for immigrants. They are given English lessons and job training. Many women then find jobs as Spanish teachers. Doctors and lawyers are given special crash courses so they can pass American examinations. Housing is found; child care is provided.

The program is large and complex. One of its greatest problems has been a lack of coordination between the many government agencies involved: the Departments of Justice, State, Labor, and Health, Education and Welfare, plus the Coast Guard (which still picks up about 35 Cubans floating to Florida in "boats" each month), the CIA, and the FBI. But recently the government's efforts have been centralized under the U.S. Cuban Refugee Program, a branch of HEW. But the program has been successful in that American officials report the Cubans have been remarkably quick to adjust to their new surroundings, remove themselves from the welfare lists, and get work.

In the first years after the Revolution, one of the biggest headaches for U.S. authorities was the widespread expectation of Cubans in Miami that Fidelismo was a transitory thing, and that they all would be returning home soon. Many exiles set out from the Florida coasts to carry out "raids" on Cuba. The insidious conspiracy of the Bay of Pigs, and the involvement of the U.S. government in that venture, plus President Kennedy's ill-considered promise to the exiles that "the flag of freedom will someday fly in the streets of Havana again," did nothing to dispel the belief of Cubans in the U.S. that this government was prepared to aid them overthrow the island's revolution.

After the Missile Crisis of 1962, most Cubans realized their chances for return were pipe-dreams. They became more willing to leave the immediate Miami area and settle down elsewhere in the country--for good. But there are still some who clutch on to a dim hope. They are embittered by the "betrayal" of the United States government, which, they feel, failed to deliver on pledges to help them "liberate" their homeland. A bewildering multitude of organizations sit in Miami and fight among themselves, fiercely pursuing the sterile intrigues of exiles.

The make-up of these groups reflects the political schisms that characterized the pre-revolutionary dictatorship. Some organizations are frankly pro-Batista, while others insist they fought against him, and were betrayed by Castro's move into an uneasy alliance with the Communists.

Yet it is by no means sure that the U.S. government--particularly the CIA--is not deeply involved with this community. Last August in Havana, the Cuban government produced 10 men--alleged CIA agents--at two press conferences for foreign journalists. They were selfadmitted members of exile organizations such as Alpha 66, and said they had been paid by the American government to carry out operations against the revolutionary regime. Extremely sophisticated radio transmission equipment was captured with the commandos. One group had brought a pistol and silencer with bullets dipped in potassium cyanide. The CIA's involvement with Cuban exiles may only extend as far as financing intelligence-- gathering operations, and its payments may only be a means of exercising some control over anti-Castro groups. The Cuban government, of course, takes a more sanguine view of the supposed link.

But Cuba's government takes a good-bye-and-good-riddance attitude toward the people who line up each morning at the American Embassy in Havana. The never-stopping flow of exiles is undoubtedly an embarassment for the Revolution; however, it also strengthens the regime by removing sources of discontent. The generic label for an exile in Cuba is gosano, which means worm.

Why do these people want to leave? Many of those who have applied to leave will talk quite freely about their reasons for going. Some, like the lady who told me that she wanted "liberty," mention political pressures for revolutionary uniformity in Cuba. Split families yearn to be reunited. But more often, Cubans will mention food and consumer goods. Food is very sparingly rationed on the island now, and the government is unwilling to devote its scanty resources to luxury consumer goods while the pressing need for rural development remains.

I talked to one young Cuban in a cafe. He used to be a professional baseball player and has applied to come to the United States. He has a girl living in Virginia whom he plans to marry. He talks about the impossibility of getting nice clothes, radios and watches in Cuba today. He says he has been waiting 18 months to get out, and thinks it will be another eight months at least. Since he has lost his job, his girl sends him Wilkinson Sword razor blades from the U.S., which he sells illegally for a dollar apiece on the streets. He sips a soft-drink from a Coca-Cola bottle between boisterous gesticulations: "After a while," he says, with everyone else in the cafe looking and listening, "after a while, you get desperate."

Recommended Articles