Cuban prisoners face uncertain future in Spain amid European debt crisis

By Jorge Sainz, AP
Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cuban prisoners face uncertain future in Spain

MADRID — Three more Cuban dissidents were flying to Spain on Wednesday, as the seven who preceded them rejoiced in their freedom despite an uncertain future in a nation mired by Europe’s debt crisis.

Some of the seven still appeared somewhat dazed on Wednesday after arriving a day earlier with just a few suitcases, or in at least one case, without even a change of clothes.

“We have to learn to live in freedom,” Julio Cesar Galvez said. “We felt a little strange on arriving. I think we have to adapt.”

Despite the discomfort, the seven went for a stroll around the city and saw that their arrival was front-page news in the Spanish dailies — alongside Spain celebrations for winning the World Cup.

“We have nothing to celebrate as long as even one of our brothers is in prison,” Pablo Pacheco told the AP. “We have had some tense but very productive hours, giving a message of hope and reconciliation to all Cubans.”

A day earlier, 62-year-old journalist Omar Ruiz said the change had been “abrupt.”

“We’re a bit nervous, and a little disoriented,” said Ruiz, who had been sentenced to 18 years in a Cuban prison. “When I arrived in the plane I thought I was still in Cuba, and I couldn’t orient myself.”

But all said Spain was a gift compared with the prisons where they were held in communist Cuba.

“I can’t complain, and I’ll shoot anyone that does,” said Ricardo Gonzalez, who had been sentenced to 20 years in a Cuban prison after doing work for Reporters Without Borders.

Now that he is in Spain, he said, “I aspire to find work … One has to aspire to work.”

That may be tough for the dissidents — most of them journalists — in a country struggling with 20 percent unemployment after a two-year recession. Spain’s journalism industry is hurting, with job freezes and layoffs the norm.

Four Cuban dissidents who came with 13 relatives and friends in 2008 — when Spain’s economy was booming — have had a tough time 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.

But the seven who arrived Tuesday — the first of more than 50 dissidents to eventually be released by the Castro government in Cuba — beamed smiles and flashed victory signs at a Madrid airport news conference. They were among 20 who have chosen to come to Spain, rather than stay on the communist island as other released prisoners chose to do, the Foreign Ministry said.

Three more — Normando Hernandez, Omar Rodriguez and Luis Milan — will arrive Wednesday, and a fourth, Mijail Barzaga, on Thursday, the ministry said.

“All those who are political prisoners will be released from jail,” Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos told journalists Tuesday night in Parliament.

Those in Spain have already had a view of the tough conditions ahead after being driven with their wives, children and some parents miles (kilometers) from central Madrid to their temporary accommodations with wives, young children and some parents.

There are no televisions in the rooms, which cost about euro25 ($31) a night, and the Internet connection is very weak.

The windows have views of factories and warehouses, and the rooms have metal lockers instead of cabinets to store clothes. The hotel has a cafeteria, but it’s at least a 20-minute walk to buy a newspaper.

“To begin with I felt a bit uncomfortable,” said Ricardo Gonzalez, an independent journalist from Havana who said he had no money or fresh clothes. “They’ve explained that we are going to be here three days.”

The accommodation was arranged by the Spanish government in collaboration with the Red Cross and aid agencies, said Elena Larrinaga, president of the Cuban-Spanish Association.

Ruiz said that, while the place was better than Santa Clara jail where he was held in Cuba, he was still “a bit surprised.”

“One bathroom for everyone, it’s not easy,” Ruiz said.

The groups tasked with looking after the Cubans include 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 provides immigrants with free medical treatment and education for children.

Ruiz 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 is welcome to apply for a visa to enter the United States.

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

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