Cuban dissidents face uncertain future in Spain amid European debt crisis

By Jorge Sainz, AP
Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cuban dissidents face uncertain future in Spain

MADRID — As two more Cuban dissidents flew into Spain, the seven who preceded them rejoiced Wednesday in their newfound freedom despite an uncertain future in a nation mired in Europe’s debt crisis.

Some of the Cubans still appeared dazed after arriving with just a few suitcases, or in one case, with no change of clothes. They were accompanied by wives, children and some older parents, part of 52 activists being released in stages by the Cuban government after being imprisoned in a 2003 crackdown. In all, 20 are expected to land in Spain.

Lester Gonzalez didn’t sleep at all during his first night out of a Cuban prison, saying that being in a modest Madrid hotel was so disorienting that he felt “like I’m in a place where I’m dreaming.”

“We have to learn to live in freedom,” added Julio Cesar Galvez, a 66-year-old journalist.

The two who arrived Wednesday, Normando Hernandez and Omar Rodriguez, were whisked away from Madrid’s airport along with 10 family members to the hotel where their compatriots were staying. Two others, Luis Milan and Mijail Barzaga, are expected to arrive Thursday.

An tear-filled reunion played out at the hotel as Hernandez saw his mother, Blanca Gonzalez, after eight years of separation.

“I have not seen my son since I left Cuba,” said Gonzalez, who flew into Madrid from Miami. “I am very tense, very nervous, very emotional.”

Despite mixed emotions over losing their homeland and embracing a new country, the other seven men were beaming as they went for a stroll around the city and saw that their arrival Tuesday was front-page news.

Pablo Pacheco fulfilled a lifetime dream by seeing the massive stadium where the Real Madrid football team plays, and said Yankee Stadium in New York was next on his list.

But with a brother still imprisoned in Cuba, the 40-year-old journalist said he could not celebrate yet. And he doesn’t plan to apply for residency in the United States, even though his mother and two brothers live in southern Florida, because he believes his 2002 application for political refuge in the United States landed him in prison.

“The U.S. government denied it and then the Cuban government gave me a 20-year prison sentence,” Pacheco said. “I don’t have anything against the United States, but that is the reality and it means a lot.”

The Cubans said being in Spain was a gift compared to their prisons in communist Cuba.

The Spanish government is assisting them, but finding jobs may be tough for the dissidents — most of them journalists. Spain has been struggling with 20 percent unemployment after a two-year recession and its journalism industry has seen many layoffs and hiring freezes.

Four Cuban dissidents who came with 13 relatives and friends in 2008 — when Spain’s economy was booming — have had a tough time adjusting and already want to leave, said Borja Bergareche of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“They found life here very hard, and would like either to return to Cuba as free men, which isn’t going to happen, or travel to the United States,” Bergareche said of the four — Pedro Pablo Alvarez Ramos, Omar Pernet Hernandez, Jose Gabriel Ramon Castillo and Alejandro Gonzalez Raga.

That didn’t worry Jose Luis Garcia, a 44-year-old journalist and plastic surgeon who arrived Tuesday. In just a short walk, he was struck by so many cars driving by, construction workers at building sites and trucks delivering goods.

“In Cuba, they talk about an apocalyptic economy in Spain, but I don’t see that here,” said Ruiz, who arrived only with a few toiletry items and the pants and shirt he was still wearing Wednesday. “The only thing I ask for from Spain is an opportunity to work.”

Social workers said they did not know when the Cubans, their wives, a few children and older relatives would leave the hotel.

Galvez wasn’t worried about where he’ll live next or whether he’ll be able to find work in journalism because just being in Spain with his wife and 5-year-old son was a joy.

“After seven years in prison, I can see my boy smiling and playing with his new toy car and looking at all the cars on the street,” Galvez said with a smile. “The situation is a lot better here than it was in Cuba.”

The Cubans, for now, are being cared for by the Spanish Red Cross, Spain’s Commission for Help to Refugees and the Spanish Catholic Migrations Association.

Each family will be handled individually, and looked after in terms of health care, maintenance and accommodation. The groups will also try to help them find work. The Spanish government already provides immigrants with free medical treatment and education for children.

Despite the deal to free them, the Cuban government has long maintained that none are prisoners of conscience. It insists they are mercenaries paid by Washington and supported by anti-Castro exiles in Miami whose only goal was to discredit the Cuban government. Many of the Web sites the journalists had worked for were maintained by exiles outside Cuba.

Omar Ruiz, a 62-year-old journalist, said he wants to go to the United States, where his wife has relatives, but “no one has offered us the opportunity.”

The U.S. Embassy in Madrid declined to comment on individual immigration cases but said anyone in Spain was welcome to apply for a visa to enter the United States. The U.S., Spain and Chile offered to take in the dissidents, but the Cubans said they were only given the choice of going to Spain or staying in prison.

Spain has said the Cubans will receive residency permits that allow them to travel freely.

Associated Press writers Harold Heckle and Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed to this report.

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