Sunday, April 13, 2008

More Cubans abandoning communist island in 'silent exodus'

AFP (Agence France Presse)/Yahoo

More Cubans abandoning communist island in 'silent exodus'

by Patrick LescotSun Apr 13, 10:12 PM ET

Despite a dizzying array of reforms since Raul Castro took the helm of Cuba's government, 2008 looks to be a record year for emigration, as inhabitants abandon the communist island in droves.

In the first half of the US fiscal year, which began on October 1, almost 3,000 Cubans tried to reach US shores by crossing the shark-infested Florida Straits, according to the US Interests Section in Havana. The number represents a 21 percent increase over the previous year.

Some Cubans are abandoning the island of some 11 million inhabitants legally; Others leave illegally, crowded on smugglers' fastboats. Almost all are heading to the islands nearby arch-enemy, the United States.

Illegal emigrants -- who are returned to Cuba by US authorities if picked up at sea, but get to stay in the United States if they reach US soil -- are joined another 20,000 Cubans to whom the Interests Section grants legal immigrant visas here every year, under the immigration accords Havana and Washington struck in 1994 and 1995.

And to their total one can add some 10,000 who hand themselves to US authorities at the Mexican border.

US authorities estimate that some 35,000 Cubans will arrive to stay this year in the United States, which grants them immediate residency and working rights for fleeing communism. It does not do the same for Chinese or Vietnamese immigrants.

Cuba charges that the US policy granting Cubans special benefits encourages dangerous and potentially deadly illegal migration.

The number of Cubans who additionally are departing for Europe and Latin American countries is not known.

Far from tapering off, what often is described as a "silent exodus" has actually picked up since Raul Castro took the reins of government -- officially as president in February, and for over a year as interim leader before then -- although his government has introduced a steady stream of minor reforms aimed at eliminating unpopular restrictions and boosting economic efficiency.

With calm weather at sea, illegal departures by sea were up sharply in February and March, from 219 to 412, US data show. Most of those picked up at sea are between 19 and 35, US Interests Section figures show.

Indeed, fully 70 percent of Cubans who made the crossing to the United States did so with smugglers, paying 8,000-10,000 dollars per person, the section's data showed.

Witnesses say the smugglers' craft sometimes even set out in broad daylight from isolated locations including on the Island of Youth, witnesses say.

In addition, the United States now is stepping up a family reunification program for Cubans who want to go live with US-based relatives. Paperwork that had been taking up to seven to 10 years now can take as little as a few weeks. There are some 1.5 million Cuban-Americans, including immigrants and their US-born descendants.

Many of them send remittance funds back to Cuba to help their families make ends meet; Cubans earn an average of the equivalent of less than 20 dollars a month and those living abroad send home about one billion dollars a year.

Earlier this month, access to appliances such as microwaves and computers was just the latest of some traditional "bans" to be dumped by Raul Castro, 76, five weeks after taking over permanently from his 81-year-old brother Fidel, who did not seek reelection.

The Raul Castro government also has dropped its controversial ban on Cubans staying in hotels reserved for the tourists who generate the lion's share of the Caribbean island's hard currency. Some rights groups had dubbed the policy "tourist apartheid."

The change is expected to be welcomed by Cubans living abroad who come home for visits and want to treat relatives to hotel stays, although locals are unlikely to be stampeding for rooms that can cost up to 300 dollars a night.

The government also has moved to try to boost farm output with some small reform steps, and said it would allow Cubans who are renting homes from state employers to gain title to them that can be passed on to their heirs.

On April 14, all Cubans for the first time will be allowed to sign contracts for cell (mobile) phones, and will be able to reach friends and relatives in the United States and beyond.

Cuba watchers say there is likely a short-term political benefit of allowing greater economic openness, though they also warn many changes in the Americas' only centrally-controlled, one-party regime could build pressure for more change than the government is prepared to allow.

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