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  • Submitted by: lena campos
  • 05 / 31 / 2012

After Spain negotiated their freedom from prison nearly two years ago, 115 Cuban dissidents landed here expressing gratitude for the chance to start anew in a country that seemed full of promise. Spaniards, too, were proud of what many considered to be a diplomatic masterstroke and a sign that Spain had taken its place as a player on the global stage alongside its larger European Union counterparts and even the United States.

Fast-forward and today many of the same Cubans are protesting again — this time, over the precarious living conditions in their adopted country, a lack of jobs and their loss of subsidies from a now cash-strapped Spanish government. One, Albert Santiago Du Bouchet Hernández, grew so despondent about his circumstances, according to his wife and friends, that he committed suicide in April.

The turnaround has proved an embarrassment for Spain, and underscored its profound and sudden transformation from what once seemed a land of opportunity to one of Europe’s worst economies, as the country slogs through a banking crisis and recession and as it struggles to avert a Greek-style bailout.

In particular, the Cubans, who were transplanted along with 647 of their relatives, have become the most prominent example of the hardships of the more than 5 million migrants — 11 percent of the population — who arrived during Spain’s decade-long boom but now stand on the front line of its economic crisis.

Some of the Cubans have held protests in downtown Madrid, as well as in other cities like Málaga, to demand that their government support payments be extended, and critics and opponents of the government have accused it of abandoning the former dissidents.

“As newcomers to a country that has now over 5 million unemployed, it’s hard to generate any sympathy here,” said Ricardo González Alfonso, a Cuban journalist who was among the first of the former dissidents to land in Madrid. “But our situation is desperate and I don’t know how I will be feeding myself and my family beyond this month.”

Joblessness among all migrants has reached 37 percent, far above the national average of 24.4 percent, already the highest in Europe. Almost 86,000 citizens from countries outside the European Union left Spain last year, according to the national statistics office, a figure that also includes those who were granted Spanish citizenship.

Some migrants complain the government has compounded their hardship. In April it announced that non-citizen migrants would no longer be eligible for free treatment in the state health system without proof of full residency status. Until now, they could be treated as long as they had registered with local authorities.

The Cubans insist that, as political refugees, they face an even more complicated situation. For one thing, other migrants can go home.

Mr. González Alfonso was arrested in March 2003, as part of a media crackdown by the Castro regime, and sentenced to 21 years in jail. While he and others are grateful to have left prison early, many of the former dissidents say they would be happier back in Cuba.

“It’s difficult for a government to discriminate between migrants, but somebody who came here of his own accord can at least go home, while there’s zero possibility for us to return to Cuba, which is where I would want to be living,” Mr. González Alfonso added. “We were taken straight from a prison cell to the airport runaway and this was never about where we would want to live.”

While the former dissidents continue to receive about $1,000 a month from Cuban exile groups in Miami, as well as help from the Cuban community here, Mr. González Alfonso said the €1,300, or $1,600, a month in subsidies he once received from the Spanish government were halted at the end of January.

The previous Socialist government, he said, had promised to maintain the subsidies for as long as 24 months, which helped cover his €750 a month rent in Alto del Arenal, a Madrid suburb, where he lives with his wife and daughter.

The new conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy insists it broke no promises and said that the decision had to be seen in the context of hefty budget cuts as Spain struggles to clean up its public finances.


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