In July 2010, the first Cuban dissidents arrive jubilantly in Madrid (here on the cover of monarchist daily ABC).

In 2010 and 2011, all Cuban "political" prisoners were released following mediation by the Cuban Catholic Church and the Spanish government. The majority chose to move to Spain with their families and start a new life there. But the European Eldorado they had dreamed of was not to be found on an Iberian peninsula suffering from a grave economic crisis. Some even wish to return to Cuba.

At the petition of the Vatican and the Spanish government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the Cuban Catholic Church, headed by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, mediated with the authorities in Havana, an intervention that led in 2010 and 2011 to the release of 127 prison inmates, 52 of whom were considered “political” by Amnesty International [1]. According to that human rights organization, there are no prisoners of conscience in Cuba [2]. The Cuban Catholic Church shares this viewpoint [3].

Some sectors accused the Cuban government, the Catholic Church and the Zapatero government of forcing those people into exile. Several Western media outlets repeated that version [4]. The Spanish Popular Party (rightist) denounced “the expatriation” of the Cuban dissidents [5].

Nevertheless, that version does not resist any analysis. In effect, of the 127 persons released in the framework of the agreement between Havana, the Vatican and Madrid, 12 chose to remain in Cuba. Laura Pollán, the then-spokeswoman for the opposition group Ladies in White, and a bitter detractor of the Cuban government, spoke clearly on the subject: “Nobody has forced any prisoner to leave the country. Whoever says the opposite is lying.” Similarly, several dissidents affirmed that at no time did the Cuban authorities ask them to leave the country as a precondition to their release [6].

Fernando Ravsberg, BBC correspondent in Havana, also denied that assertion. Several dissidents who chose to leave the country told him that “they could have remained on the island if they had so wished. They assured me that at no time was departure abroad imposed upon them as a precondition for release [7].

The painful reality in Spain

Far from finding a prosperous nation, the Cuban dissidents were strongly impacted by the economic crisis that besets Spain. Most of them have no jobs, no resources and sometimes no roof over their heads. The Red Cross shelters take care of them. According to the Spanish press, “one year after their arrival, the exiles are losing government aid and find themselves without any resources, because a huge majority of them have not found stable employment [8].

The new right-wing Spanish government decided to eliminate the aid granted to the Cuban dissidents one year after their arrival and refused to extend it 12 months, as originally planned, for economic reasons [9]. In fact, Spain spent an average of 2,000 euros a month per person, i.e., more than 18 million euros, to cover the needs of the 115 dissidents and their 648 relatives for one year. The cost was deemed to be too high in a country with 5 million unemployed citizens, about 25 percent of the active population [10].

Nevertheless, the Popular Party (PP) did not hesitate to use the Cubans in its political war against Havana and took four of them to Brussels to testify and defend the need to maintain the European Union’s Common Position toward Cuba, which limits political, diplomatic and cultural relations. However, the PP was ungrateful when it halted the financial assistance to them, leaving the Cuban dissidents with the bitter feeling that they had been used [11].

Since their arrival in Spain, the dissidents had ceaselessly expressed their support for the PP and criticized Zapatero’s PSOE [Socialist Workers Party], which had helped to release them [12] Then, the Cuban dissidents decided to go on a hunger strike to protest against the PP’s decision and express their “total abandonment.” “It’s the only alternative we’ve got left,” said one of them, sitting under a tent outside the Spanish Foreign Ministry building in Madrid [13].

Two years later, the same dissidents have rebelled against the hand that no longer feeds them, by staging a hunger strike against the Spanish state.

Far from being attended by the Spanish authorities, the hunger strikers were “brutally” removed by the police and told to leave the public square [14]. Dawuimis Santana denounced the police brutality inflicted on them: “They were dragged along the ground, struck on the face and arms; one of them has a broken nose.” Four of them were arrested [15].

The forces of order usually are severe with demonstrators of every kind and made no exception with the Cuban dissidents. Some observers said that the Popular Party, habitually very willing to come to the defense of the Cuban dissidents and denounce the “oppression” of which they were victims on the island, was this time very discreet when it came to the behavior of the Madrid municipal police toward them [16].

José Manuel García Margallo, the Spanish Foreign Minister, acknowledged that the Cubans’ case was not “simple” and they were “in a difficult situation.” But he rejected any idea of extending their financial aid in view of the economic crisis afflicting the country. At most, he promised to speed up the process of validation of university diplomas [17].

Sometimes, the feeling of abandonment that the Cuban dissidents experience in Spain takes tragic turns. Albert Santiago du Bouchet, who lived in the Canary Islands since his release, committed suicide on 4 April 2012 in response to the Spanish authorities eliminating his monthly cash allotment [18]. The Spanish government rejected any “direct link” between the suicide and the decision to end the financial aid. Still, his family and several friends stated that his precarious economic situation was the principal cause of the drama [19].

Return to Cuba?

Contrary to all predictions, several dissidents declared their intention of returning to Cuba if they couldn’t travel to the United States, accusing Spain of abandoning themJ [20]. “It’s better to be in Cuba than on the street here,” said Ismara Sánchez [21]. “I’ve been on the street since March 31, unable to afford a room", complained Idalmis Núñez. “Things are difficult now; we have dragged our families far from home and we can’t feed them. For the first time in my life, my conscience weighs on me. I’m afraid,” admitted another oppositionist [22].

The children have no more food, no milk. The children can’t go to school because they don’t have money for transportation,” said oppositionist Bermúdez [23]. Orlando Fundora and his wife had to face such difficult living conditions that they even missed their homeland. In an interview with the BBC, Fundora unexpectedly confessed: “We ate better in Cuba [24]."

In reality, the decision to return to Cuba is not so surprising. Despite the nation’s limited resources, the difficulties and daily vicissitudes created by the economic blockade the United States has imposed since 1960, which affects all categories of the population and is the main obstacle to the nation’s development, the government of Havana has built a relatively effective system of social protection that satisfies the population’s basic needs. Thus, despite the troubles, 85 percent of the Cubans own their homes. They also benefit from free access to education, health care and cultural activities. The ration card allows them to receive each month, in addition to their salary, a basic food basket that’s sufficient for two weeks. That way, nobody is left to his own devices and the state looks after the more vulnerable strata of society. For that reason, despite the limits in natural resources, in Cuba you won’t find homeless people or abandoned children on the streets. According to UNICEF, Cuba is the only Third World country without malnourished children [25].

In the end, Europe was not the Eldorado promised to the Cuban dissidents. They had to face the brutal economic reality of the Iberian Peninsula and discovered that the most vulnerable were swiftly left to their own fate. They also realized that their island is not the anteroom to Hell, despite the daily problems, and that Cuba’s system of social protection takes care of the weakest citizens.

[1Amnesty International, « Cuba, Annual Report 2012 », 2012. (site consulted July 2, 2012).


[3Juan O. Tamayo, « Tensa cita de las Damas de Blanco con Iglesia cubana », El Nuevo Herald, May 25, 2012.

[4Axel Gyldén, « En exil forcé, un dissident cubain met fin à ses jours », L’Express, April 7, 2012.

[5Público, « Aznar afirma que los presos cubanos sufren ‘un destierro’ en España », July 28, 2010.

[6Fernando Ravsberg, « La conspiración católico-comunista », BBC, June 23, 2011. (site consulted June 14, 2012).


[8Carmen Pérez-Lanzac, « Exprisioneros políticos refugiados en España protestan tras quedarse sin ayudas », El País, April 11, 2012.

[9Carmen Pérez-Lanzac, « Entre 2010 y 2011 llegaron a España 767 cubanos : 115 presos y sus familiares », El País, April 10, 2010.

[10Joaquín Gil, « El Gobierno paga 2.000 euros al mes por cada uno de los 762 disidentes y familiares », El País, July 13, 2011.

[11Jerónimo Andreu, « Exprisioneros políticos traídos a España por Exteriores hace un año pierden las ayudas públicas »,El País, April 9, 2012.

[12EFE, « Opositores cubanos piden a España una actitud ‘más enérgica’ contra castrismo », January 20, 2012.

[13EFE, « Diez ex presos cubanos deciden emprender una huelga de hambre en Madrid », April 13, 2012.


[15Europa Press, « Denuncian la detención de cuatro expresos cubanos que protestaban en Madrid ante le Ministerio de Exteriores », May 23, 2012.

[16EFE, « El Partido Popular español exige a Cuba que deje de oprimir a la disidencia », January 20, 2012.

[17Carmen Pérez-Lanzac, « Exprisioneros políticos refugiados en España protestan tras quedarse sin ayudas », El País, April 11, 2012.

[18El País, « Fallece un expreso político cubano llegado a España el año pasado », April 6, 2012.

[19Europa Press, « España no ve ‘relación directa’ entre el suicidio de un disidente y el fin de la ayuda », April 9, 2012.

[20Juan O. Tamayo, « Ex presos políticos cubanos en España viven pesadilla », El Nuevo Herald, April 17, 2012.

[21Ríos Biot, « ‘Es mejor estar en Cuba que aquí en la calle », El País, April 13, 2012.

[22Jerónimo Andreu, « Exprisioneros políticos traídos a España por Exteriores hace un año pierden las ayudas públicas », El País, April 9, 2012.

[23EFE, « Ex presos cubanos denuncian en Madrid su ‘total desamparo’ », April 10, 2012.

[24Fernando Ravsberg, « La conspiración católico-comunista », BBC, op. cit.

[25UNICEF, Progreso para la infancia. Un balance sobre la nutrición, 2011.