Thursday, August 28, 2014

End of the Road for Cuban Refugees?

Cuban refugee Rafael Alejandro Hernández argues with an immigration official on Plaza Bolivar today.
They'd fled from Cuba to Ecuador to escape, they claim, abuse and violence from government authorities.
From Ecuador they crossed into Colombia four months ago, and today planted themselves on Bogotá's Plaza Bolivar and announced a hunger strike until they received refuge in some free nation.

'Cuban political opponents. Colombia denied us refuge,'
says the poster.
"I don't care about getting mugged on a bus," said Rafael Alejandro Hernández, "I just want to live in liberty."

Hernández and his friend Yuniesky Rampón Borges Jiménez said that back in Cuba they'd opposed the government and been repeatedly arrested and physically beaten for their actions. Hernández recited a list of Cuban dissident journalists he said were his friends.

The pair had requested asylum in Colombia, but understood that their case had been rejected. They seemed clearly desperate. Hernández, who claimed that the Cuban government had trained him from age 16 to be a spy and to infiltrate the U.S., said he'd had to leave behind his infant daughter in Cuba.

If the pair wanted attention, they'd chosen the right place. Colombian police and migracíón officials showed up, the migración officials eager to take the Cubans back to their office to discuss their cases.

"There are many possible solutions," an immigration official assured them. "In Colombia, every procedure has an appeal."

Yet, their prospects weren't good. In March, Colombia denied refugee status for six Cubans who two months previously had gotten off of a plane headed to Cuba and staged a hunger strike in the El Dorado Airport. By that time, Colombian government officials said they had lost track of the six Cubans.

The two Cubans on Plaza Bolivar this afternoon were nervous about trusting the government officials - appropriately, for citizens of the hemisphere's last surviving full dictatorship. They feared being sent back to Cuba or to Venezuela, a close Cuban ally.

"You're not being detained," the official assured them. "We'll just talk."

An older man with a bicycle listening to the discussion, apparently a sympathizer of the Cuban government, began criticizing the paramilitarism and corruption in Colombia.

"If you said those things in Cuba, my friend, you'd be in prison already," Hernández told him.

But other bystanders were also fearful. One woman worried that people would be endangered because they appeared in my photographs. (I can't imagine that would be true, in this situation.)
Ready to go with the officials, Hernández rolls up a poster
announcing their hunger strike.

"You foreigners have caused us all problems," another person in the crowd yelled out. "Foreigners started the guerrillas here."

During the Cold War, Cuba financed guerrilla groups across the continent. And Colombia's ELN guerrillas were founded by a group of young Colombians who had studied in Cuba.

"The last thing we want to do is cause problems," Hernández assured her.

This man criticized Colombia as corrupt and violent.
"These people are crazy," one of the immigration officials told the Cubans.

"You see, we can't talk here."
The immigration officials urgently wanted the protesting Cubans off of the government plaza. Cuba is hosting peace negotiations between the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas. Perhaps an international incident involving Cuban dissidents wouldn't be convenient.

"What about those negotiations in Cuba?" Hernández asked. "You see - there's politics in everything."

Bystanders watch and photograph as the Cubans
leave with immigration officials.
The two men finally, reluctantly, agreed to go to the immigration office. Hernández gave me his e-mail address - rafale1220 (at) gmail (dot) com .

"Write me. If I don't reply in three days, it means I've been disappeared, or sent away," Hernandez told me. Apologetically, he added: "I've been made to imagine the worst possible things."

The crowd from the plaza followed them to the government car. "Copy down the license plate number," someone yelled out. Others photographed the official cars.

Update: Hernández wrote and said they'd had a successful meeting with the immigration folks, who gave the Cubans three additional months of 'safe passage' in Colombia and promised to send them to a third country. If not, however, he says 'We'll resume our hunger strike.'

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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