American diplomats tell Cuban dissidents exile in Spain complicates US asylum requests

By Paul Haven, AP
Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cuba dissidents told Spain exile muddles US asylum

HAVANA — The United States appears to have modified a pledge to take in freed Cuban political prisoners, telling their relatives that it will be more difficult for them to apply for asylum if they first accept a Church-brokered deal to trade jail for exile in Spain.

The warnings, confirmed by the family members of six imprisoned dissidents, come at a delicate time and could complicate the releases of 52 activists, journalists and opposition leaders arrested in a 2003 crackdown.

Under a deal brokered by Cuban Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega earlier this month, the communist government has already freed 11 political prisoners and flown them to Madrid. Nine others have accepted the offer and are expected to arrive in coming days.

The rest of the jailed dissidents have either refused to go, or have not yet been contacted by Church officials. The Church has referred to exile in Spain as an “option,” but has not specified what will happen to those who refuse to leave the country.

The family members of several dissidents who have not yet accepted Spanish asylum met Tuesday with officials at the U.S. Interests Section, which Washington maintains in Havana instead of an embassy. Other family members are expected to visit the Interests Section in coming days.

After the meetings, the relatives told The Associated Press they were informed they would not be allowed to apply for asylum in the United States from Spain, but could petition for residence like any other would-be immigrant.

“We came here thinking they would give us some option (of applying for asylum from Spain), but they won’t,” said Sofia Garcia, whose husband, Jose Miguel Martinez, has been serving a 13-year sentence for treason.

She said she was told that if the family goes to Spain they would have to apply for residence in the United States through regular channels, a process that can take years and usually requires a sponsor.

Teresita Galvan, whose brother Miguel Galvan is serving a 26-year term, said she left the meeting under the impression that by accepting the deal to go to Spain, her family would give up its right to later claim asylum in the United States.

It means a stark choice for some of the dissidents, many of whom have family in the United States: Stay in Cuba and try to win U.S. asylum, or leave immediately for Spain and take themselves out of consideration.

Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman at the Interests Section, confirmed that individual meetings were taking place to answer questions the family members might have about seeking asylum.

Berbena said the Cubans were being informed that any asylum applications from Spain would be handled differently from those made inside Cuba.

“The process is different depending on where you apply from,” she said.

Cubans applying for asylum in the United States can claim that they face persecution or danger if they remain in the country, something that would be harder to do if they have already fled to a friendly country.

When asked if American diplomats were advising the prisoners not to accept Spanish asylum, Berbena said only: “We believe that Cubans should be free to make their own decisions.”

The U.S. position on asylum outlined for dissident family members in Havana on Tuesday appeared to differ from what American officials have said previously.

When asked at a July 8 news conference in Washington whether the released Cuban prisoners “would be welcome in the U.S.,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner responded: “Absolutely.”

Asked whether America had added caveats to that offer in the meetings with dissidents, Berbena said the U.S. position had not changed.

“Political prisoners and their family members in Cuba are eligible to apply for refugee status or humanitarian parole through the U.S. Interests Section,” she said.

News of the meetings came as the Spanish Foreign Ministry announced that the arrival in Madrid of another group of Cuban political prisoners has been delayed. A ministry spokesman said eight prisoners and their families had been scheduled to arrive Tuesday but would now be coming in the next few days.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with ministry regulations.

Spain has told the former prisoners they will be given work and residency permits within three to four months. It has advised them not to seek the official status of “asylum,” because such a designation would bar them from making political statements and would make it impossible to return to Cuba for visits.

One of the freed prisoners in Madrid, Omar Ruiz, told AP on Tuesday that he had not been in contact with U.S. officials but wanted to eventually resettle in Miami, where his wife’s family lives.

Ruiz, who was serving an 18-year jail term for treason before his release, said he hoped his decision to go to Spain had not hurt his chances.

“My idea continues to be to go there,” said Ruiz. “We will go as soon as possible.”

Associated Press Writers Andrea Rodriguez in Havana and Jorge Sainz in Madrid contributed to this report.

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