Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*
HAVANA TIMES — The New Herald recently ran an AFP press dispatch that is worth analyzing. It is one of those brief, analytic pieces that address the complicated issue of Cuban emigration.
The article makes special emphasis on the opinions voiced by a renowned Cuban scholar, the director of the Center for Demographic Studies of the University of Havana (CEDEM), Antonio Aja.
I believe that what Aja stated is pretty much what has been said the most on the matter in Cuba to date, at least in the government circles to which Aja belongs in his capacity as director of an institution as strategically important as the CEDEM.
It is comparable, for example, to the speech Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez made before a group of “patriotic and respectful” émigrés, during a gathering in New York held a few years ago, where the official dramatically downplayed the importance of any current economic contribution to the island’s development made by the émigré community, insisting Cuba needed a lot more money than émigrés could contribute.
At the same time, Aja’s statements are a bitter indication of the limits of Cuba’s official discourse – and corresponding practice – surrounding this issue.
According to Aja, Cuba is a migratory country (a concept as close to what Cuba actually is, a transnational society, as we have heard). As such, it must begin to create spaces for practical measures that respond to this reality.
Aja conceives of such measures as different ways of capitalizing on that émigré community, as numerous countries do. This means that “they should spend time in Cuba, work in Cuba, invest in Cuba, that is to say, that the (national) project takes them into consideration. Cuba has to take them into consideration.” That is to say, Cuba must allow “all émigrés who can take part in this project to do so.”
In other words, the director of the CEDEM is inviting those Cuban émigrés “who can”, that is to say, those who have money that can be “capitalized” on, to take part in an allegedly national project that neither the population nor the émigré community – nor many government officials, I am willing to bet – know anything about. In passing, he adds that all of this represents a step forward made possible by the recent migratory reform.
I agree that the migratory reform is an appropriate step, but I also believe it leaves things as they are – in the sorry place they’re in, that is – in two senses.
In the first place, it does not establish rights; it only extends permits for Cubans residing on the island. Secondly, it does not substantially change the exile status of émigrés, whom it only allows a longer visit, and to return to Cuba definitively if they so request it and their petition is granted.
It is true, as Aja states, that émigrés have become the essential pillars of many national economies. The scholar, however, omits some rather vital details. For instance, he neglects to mention that source countries try to tap as much of the potential of their émigrés as they can (capital for investment, superior technical know-how, social and institutional relations, etc.), and that, to do this, they offer these émigrés numerous incentives, from import tax exemptions to ostentatious welcomes at airports, when these visit the country en masse on festive occasions.
Most importantly, these countries implement measures aimed at integrating émigrés into the country’s affairs, by affording citizens living overseas the same political rights as others: the right to vote and choose their government representatives.
Unfortunately, the Cuban government continues to regard its émigrés as debris that has broken off from the nation’s edifice and seeks to squeeze out as much surplus value from them as it can through remittances and consular services that cost an arm and a leg.
It no longer looks on them as counterrevolutionary ogres, traitors who have jumped off the train of the revolution. Now, it sees in them a kind of gold mine where it can make easy money – Cuban officials have a passion for easy money – and even recognize pockets of “respectful and patriotic” émigrés, inviting these to meetings where, we are told, Cuba enters into talks with its émigrés. In fact, the government is merely having secretive chats with its usual gang of supporters.
As for the rest, the great mass of émigrés who sustain people’s livelihoods with their remittances, it now invites them to make up and be friends – offering so little and asking for so much in return, that one can only conclude Cuban officials are thinking of a very uneven type of friendship. With such “friends”, it is safe to say the émigré community has no need of enemies.
(*) An HT translation of the orginal published in Spanish by Cubanencuentro.com.