September 25, 2007

Six months ago it was unimaginable that Cuban exiles would line up to return to their native land readied for anything but full-scale combat. Less thinkable was the idea of exiles calling for an end to the 17-year-old U.S. embargo of Cuba. Back on the island, the release of the counter-revolutionary prisoners was equally unexpected by the Cuban people. Nevertheless, all this and more has come to pass since September 6, 1978 when President Fidel Castro initiated a dialogue with Cuban overseas communities and began to radically alter relations between Cubans at home and abroad.

Because of the past antagonisms between the participants, it would be difficult to imagine joining a more unlikely cast of characters on one stage. Nevertheless, the dialogue began in earnest in Havana on November 20-21. Fidel Castro and top government and party leaders represented Cuba. The estimated 1.2 million exiles in the United States, Spain and Venezuela were represented by what became called the Commission of 75. It included members ranging from veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion to the Antonio Maceo Brigade, a group of young Cuban-Americans who tend to support the revolution and favor normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States. Other representatives included academics, professionals, church officials and Florida businessmen influential in Democratic and Miami politics. Ironically this commission enthusiastically accepted Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Ricardo Alarcon as moderator of the discussions, a man whom exiles had scorned and physically threatened throughout his twelve years as Cuba's ambassador to the United Nations.

UNEXPECTED AGREEMENTS All the representatives came together in Havana to discuss a three-point agenda: the release of political prisoners in Cuba, the reunification of families separated by emigration, and visits to the island by exiles. With regard to the release of political prisoners, President Castro gave the first public and precise accounting of the total number of political prisoners held in Cuba: 3,238 persons for committing crimes against the state, 425 for crimes committed during the Batista dictatorship-3,763 in all. He announced that Cuba was willing to release 3,000 of this number plus and additional 600 lancheros, the Cuban equivalent of "boat people," who are serving time for attempting to leave the country illegally.

On October 21, prior to the first session of the dialogue, Cuba had released 46 prisoners to whom the United States government had already granted immigration visas. Subsequent releases are scheduled at the rate of 400 prisoners per month. Exceptions to the release pro- gram are those who maintain links to terrorist groups and those who committed atrocious crimes under Batista. Neither of these exceptions apply to women prisoners, however, who will all be released. Huber Matos, Cuba's most renowned political prisoner and once Amnesty International's "Prisoner of the Year," will be freed before his sentence ends next year.

For the reunification of Cuban families, the Cuban government was willing to authorize immigration permits, with few exceptions. Given pressures on housing and other social resources, President Castro explained, Cuba was willing to accept only a minimum number of exiles who wish to return to the island permanently.

The Cuban government also announced it would permit visits to Cuba by exiles beginning January 1, 1979. Since this date, Cuba has been open for visits by individuals for humanitarian reasons and by groups for tourism. Special arrangements are being set up in Cuba to receive exile tours from the United States. Cuba expects that 100,000 exiles will visit the island in 1979 and that they will bring an estimated $500 million of revenue into the country.

Related to the release of prisoners and questions of emigration is the thorny issue of the approximately 5,000 ex-prisoners who were already on the streets in Cuba. Many of these have had difficulties finding suitable jobs and they have been socially ostracized by their compatriots because of their convictions or for counter-revolutionary crimes. They too want to leave Cuba, and the government is willing to allow them and their families to emigrate, probably a total of more than 30,000 people.

The first session of the dialogue raised the question of whether the U.S. government would grant immigration visas to the released Cuban prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families, and Cubans wishing to join family members already in the United States. The uncertainty about how the U.S. government would react was heightened by the fact that, when initiating the dialogue, President Castro had emphasized that the discusions would be between Cubans and that the United States would be excluded. The task of pressuring and negotiating with the U.S. government was given to the Commission of 75. Finally, December 8-9 was set as the date when discussion of the dialogue's three major points would conclude.

Upon their return to the United States, the Commission launched a telegram campaign among exiles calling on President Carter for admission to the United States of released prisoners and ex-prisoners. That several members of the Commission had direct political or personal ties to Carter aided their cause. Among these were Bernardo Benes, the Miami banker who was Carter's 1976 campaign director for Hispanic affairs in Florida and self-appointed spokesperson for the Commission; Juan Manuel Rodrigues, a Carter appointee high in the Housing and Urban Development Administration; and Rev. Jose Reyes, a Baptist minister who was once Carter's theology professor.


Sidelined from the dialogue, the Carter administration recognized only begrudgingly the Cuban government's unprecedented human rights actions. Nevertheless, on November 28 Attorney General Griffin Bell announced that the Justice Department was willing to issue 3,500 visas for prisoners released since August 1, 1978 at the rate of 400 per month. Additional visas are to be granted to their family members, calculated at approximately three per prisoner. Those released before August 1 and others seeking entry to the United States will have to go through normal immigration channels, though a Justice Department official has said that their papers will be expedited.

The concluding session of the dialogue brought word of the United States' response to Cuba on December 8. For this meeting the Commission of 75 was expanded to some 140 exiles giving broader geographic representation. A final act formalizing their accords on prisoner releases, reunification of families and visits to the island was signed by Cuban government leaders and exile representatives. The problem of admittance of exprisoners to the United States or elsewhere remained unsettled. The Commission resolved to continue to pressure the U.S. government on this issue.


The dialogue and its conclusions were not accepted by all anti-Castro groups. Immediately following Castro's announcement which initiated the dialogue last September the right-wing terrorist group Omega 7 bombed the Cuban mission to the United Nations. A few weeks later 37 exile groups announced in Miami their opposition to the dialogue, calling Cuba's gesture "just another piece of Castro's trickery." Two more bombings followed, one on October 6, the day of a U.S.-Cuba boxing match in Madison Square Garden, the other on October 21 at the New York offices of El Diario-La Prensa, a newspaper which welcomed the dialogue. Despite this opposition, it is widely believed that the dialogue has virtually defused Cuban counterrevolutionary activites within the U.S. exile community for good.

Resistance to their own release from jail by some 100 Cuban political prisoners was reported in the Miami Herald, but this reaction was not universal. This writer traveled to Cuba in early November and visited the Combinado del Este prison outside Havana, where approximately 45 percent of counterrevolutionary offenders are kept. She spoke to a group of about 25 political prisoners who expressed their concern that exile opposition to the dialogue might delay, or even prevent, their release. Prison authorities had circulated reports from abroad of both favorable and hostile exile reactions. The prisoners wanted their wish made known that the dialogue proceed as rapidly as possible. In any case Castro has said that Cuba does not want to keep any "voluntary prisoners."

One of the long term effects of the dialogue ironically might be that the Cuban exile communty, often characterized by its unim dying opposition to the Cuban revolution, will become pivotal in lifting the U.S. embargo of Cuba and normalizing U.S. Cuban relations. Those groups which favor normalizing relations have been strengthened by the success of the dialogue. Cuba's action on the human rights front has left only the issues of Cuba's involvement in Africa and the old claims of U.S. property expropriated by the Cuban government as obstacles. These issues may remain insurmountable in the near future, however, as Carter's recognition of China and the alleged abandonment of Taiwan has inflamed right-wing opposition in the Congress against further liberalization of U.S. foreign policy toward socialist nations.

Tags: Cuba, exiles, dialogue, political prisoners, Fidel Castro

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.