Against the Stereotype of the illegal Immigrant in Cuba

Yenisel Rodriguez Perez

Drawing. Photo: Juan Suárez

HAVANA TIMES – I once saw ethnologist Miguel Barnet, Chair of the Association of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC), in a bout of ill-intentioned perplexity. The man of letters was giving the opening speech for a social sciences symposium that addressed the issue of illegal settlements in the capital, mostly populated by immigrants from other provinces.

His remarks were mostly a condemnation of those places and their inhabitants, but his criticisms were unclear, particularly because he left it up to the audience to work out the inquisitional lesson of his speech.

The academic asked those present why such precarious shanties existed in socialist Cuba, as though these were a kind of spontaneous mutation with no apparent cause.

All the while, he claimed to be in a state of “profound confusion”. After all, an ethnologist doesn’t make a habit of attacking impoverished and marginalized populations, least of all someone like Barnet, who is known as the biographer of Cuba’s last run-away slave.

This way, he washed his hands like Pontius Pilate and left the dirty work in the hands of his audience, government academics in their majority.

This experience was a kind of foretaste of the radicalization of Cuba’s internal migratory policies, whose most radical directives are something of a dirty secret, today masked with the discourse of a sustainable urban planning that is being promoted at all levels.

When we read between the lines, we note that one of the chief interests of the campaign is to continue with and extend the forced deportations of internal immigrants.

How much have these immigrants contributed to enriching the daily life of Havana? Why are we only shown the negative aspects of this illegalized immigration?

These are the questions that come to mind when I see the complicity of scientific thought and common sense in forced deportations.

One of the causes of this are our classifications. What does being a fourth or fifth generation resident of Havana, a condition many defend with pride, actually mean? Does it signify a kind of urban or cosmopolitan purity?

All of this is born of the fallacy surrounding one’s place of origin, a double-edged sword that is deliberately used in the case of illegalized immigration, as it is applied chiefly to the poor, the marginalized and the excluded.

Many people and sectors of the population who were not born in Havana become residents of the capital through official channels (most are government officials and institutional staff), on the basis of incoherent arguments that contradict migratory directives themselves.

The government uses the terms “legal” and “illegal” immigrant, and the category of resident and many others, according to its interests, relying on popular superstitions and traditional negative stereotypes.

That is why we must question the exclusive and discriminatory terms and concepts that are diluted in our common sense.

Similarly, we must overcome popular prejudices that assign regionalist, racist and xenophobic attributes to people, attributes that facility people’s complicity in these forced deportations.

I make special emphasis on the logic applied to single men devoid of families, who are subject to very unjust treatment during deportation, including imprisonment and physical mistreatment.

3 thoughts on “Against the Stereotype of the illegal Immigrant in Cuba

  • Excellent information and list of links!

    “He (Fidel Castro) justified such actions by explaining that free movement to the capital would endanger Cuba’s security due to the state’s insufficient control and knowledge of the identities of Havana’s residents and guests.”

    Power, paranoia and the imperatives of absolute control over the people.

  • Please correct the title: these “palestinos” aren’t “immigrant”, they are internal migrants.

    Some background:

    Decree 217: Heightened Control of Internal Movement

    In a public address on April 4, 1997, President Castro urged the populace to fight against the “indiscipline” favored by the “enemy” and demonstrated by “illegal immigration” to Havana and announced that the state was planning to halt such movement.184 He justified such actions by explaining that free movement to the capital would endanger Cuba’s security due to the state’s insufficient control and knowledge of the identities of Havana’s residents and guests. International human rights law assures the right to liberty of movement within a country’s borders and the right to enter and leave one’s country of origin.185 President Castro called upon the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (Comités para la Defensa de la Revolución, CDRs), pro-government groups that have taken part in intimidations of government opponents, to work with the police to gather information on Havana residents. The president also mentioned problems with overcrowding, overbuilding, and crime that had resulted from increased population pressures in Havana. On April 22, 1997, President Castro signed Decree 217, creating internal migratory regulations for Havana.

    Decree 217 explains restrictions on internal movement as being due to public health, welfare, and public order concerns. While these issues in some circumstances justify narrowly-tailored restrictions on movement, President Castro’s prior statements highlighting the government’s interest in minimizing “indiscipline” and maintaining tight control over citizens’ movement for security reasons call into question the government’s motivation in creating Decree 217. By late April 1997, the Cuban press announced that more than 1,600 “illegal residents” of Havana had been returned to their home provinces “using persuasive methods.”186 By mid-May, many more Havana residents had received government notices that they had forty-eight hours to regularize their status in the city or face fines and the “obligation to return immediately to their place of origin.”187 The government’s provision of an extremely brief period for Havana residents to demonstrate the legitimacy of their presence in the capital raised additional concerns about whether the Cuban authorities were ensuring sufficient due process guarantees. By June 1998, the Cuban government reported that some 27,717 people had left Havana since the law took effect, although not necessarily due to its application, while 22,560 others had moved to Havana, resulting in a net population decrease of over 5,000 residents.188 While diplomats noted that the law had not resulted in massive round-ups and deportations, Cuban migrants to Havana expressed frustration that they could not choose where to live and that police demands for their personal papers and proof of “legal” residency had increased.189

    Decree 217 prohibits persons in other provinces from moving into Havana on the grounds that if internal migration was left unchecked, the city’s problems regarding housing, public transport, water, and electrical supplies would become worse; visits to the city were permissible. Police frequently checked the identification of persons on the streets, and if someone from another province was found living in Havana illegally, that person was fined $12 (300 pesos) and sent back home. Fines were $40 (1,000 pesos) for those who resided illegally in the neighborhoods of Old Havana and Cerro. Human rights observers noted that while the decree affected migration countrywide, it targeted individuals and families predominantly of African descent from the more impoverished eastern provinces.

    On June 1, police in Havana province entered the neighborhood of Buena Esperanza to remove persons from the eastern provinces living in the area without authorization. An unknown number of men were removed in trucks on that date, while women and children were given 72 hours to depart (see Section 1.d.).

    in 1997, Castro implemented Decree 217, which was designed to “control the migration flow from poorer provinces to the capital city of Havana.” In effect, this specifically targeted the poor black and mulatto population concentrated in the eastern provinces. “The decree also resulted in numerous credible reports that said many desperate blacks and mulatto squatters, not having official permission to reside in Havana under Decree 217, are forcibly evicted from their homes and sent back to the countryside.

    A new documentary by a young Cuban filmmaker has cast a harsh spotlight on the housing and other serious problems faced by the thousands of Cubans who move illegally from the provinces to Havana in search of better lives.

    The migrants, mostly from eastern Cuba and known as ”Palestinians” because they lack legal residency in Havana, often are forced to live in shanty towns on the edges of the capital and expelled by police back to their hometowns.

    ”The phenomenon of forcible return continues to exist, although the police proceed silently and with some secrecy,” said Elizardo Sánchez, president of the illegal but tolerated Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

    Sánchez estimated that dozens of people are expelled from Havana every week by bus or train after being detained for failure to produce documents confirming their legal residence in Havana. Repeat violators are taken to court, although the sanctions consist only of fines and official ”banishment” from the capital for several years.

    Source: “Film casts harsh light on problems in Havana.”
    Original source link:
    Archive copy:

    This “law” is also often used to expel people the regime deems “undesirable” from Havana were access to international diplomatic representations, communication and the international press is easier.
    It is used to silence those that report on abuses in Cuba.

    Provincial journalist detained and expelled from Havana

    “We condemn the detention and expulsion of Ernesto Corría Cabrera. It is nothing more than a means of stopping him from working in his own capital city as a journalist,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Cuban authorities must allow all journalists to move freely through the country.”

    After reviewing Corría Cabrera’s I.D. card, the officer informed him that he was being detained for violating a decree that requires Cuban citizens who reside outside Havana to request a special permit to remain in the capital for more than 24 hours, the journalist told CPJ. Independent journalist Oscar Espinosa Chepe told CPJ this decree is often used to deport independent journalists and dissidents from Havana.


  • In Canada, all people are free to move from any province or territory to anywhere else. We do not have to ask the government or police for permission to live in Toronto or anywhere else. Why are there such controls on internal migration in Cuba?

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