At Berlin Conference, 25 April, 2007
First of all, I would like to express special thanks to all who, although not being from Cuba, have shown their interest in its issues. I will not mention them, since they are so many I would speak for too long, but I am sincerely glad to know we are not alone. I am also happy to see here persons of different ages and different parties. Sometimes, when talking about Cuba, some persons consider it positive that Cuba has so many qualified professionals in areas such as medicine. And it certainly is a positive aspect. They also consider it positive that Cuba exports them. For Cuban citizens, locked on the island with little information available, the opportunity of leaving the country is undoubtedly always some kind of relief. However, it seems to me not many people think about the conditions of their travel, about how they live abroad, and what their lives look like if they decide to escape. For example, it is known that the doctors in Venezuela and other countries live under strict control of the Cuban government. There is always a coordinator, there are always the state security agents, and they have to spy on each other. Their families are held hostages in Cuba. Before leaving the island the workers are told: “If you go, don’t think you will ever see your family. Your son will never leave the country, we will take care of that. And you will never be able to come back.” These persons are confronted with a whole mechanism of threatening and pressure.
In particular, I have worked on Curacao, cooperating with the Cuba Futuro Foundation and the International Group for Social Corporate Responsibility in Cuba (GIRSC) on the specific case of Curacao shipyard. The Cuban government asked the shipyard to repair a few of its ships and then said: “I have no money to pay you.” The government of Curacao, which is the owner of the shipyard, decided to establish a joint venture company of the Curacao and the Havana shipyard, and they both became co-owners of each others shipyards. However, the union didn’t work. That was in 1992-93; but the debt remained unpaid. The governments have therefore signed an agreement in which Cuba promises to pay the debt amounting to millions of dollars (originally, the debt was about 12 millions, but since it wasn’t paid for some time, the total sum increased due to the interest rates). The problem is that Cuba pays with human labor. These highly qualified specialists (many of them are ship welders which can even weld under water), whose work equals more or less 25 dollars an hour, were paid one dollar an hour for up to 12-hour day shifts. Many times, however, they would work 14 to 16 hours a day, still receiving 12 dollars. These workers were locked in the same Curacao shipyard, in a barrack - about ten persons sleeping in bunk beds in one room, sharing one bathroom, and being obliged to keep watch on each other. They couldn’t go out alone, but as a group, and had to come back by 11 p.m. just like Cinderella. It was a little Cuba, with all of them there.
Everybody knows Cuba violates all the international treaties about workers' rights it has signed. However, it is extremely embarrassing that we are talking here about violations in the Kingdom of Holland, within a system that is supposed to be democratic. I have heard it only in rumor, because I cooperate with a newspaper written in Spanish, but I couldn’t prove it. It is very delicate to write about a topic without having a direct contact with the persons involved, since they are not allowed to be in contact with the outside world. And it is even more difficult in the case of escaped Cubans. Three of them ran away, we interviewed them, they wrote a complaint letter and in January 2005 we started contacting the authorities to deal with the issue. When they ran away, the Cuban state security circulated pictures of these persons in all Curacao, saying they were escaped prisoners, and asking people to call if they see them. A private security company from Venezuela, called Panamericana de Seguridad, also searched for these men. They managed to escape form Curacao to Colombia and thanks to Cuba Futuro are now in the USA, filing a complaint and presenting their case before court with the help of the International Group for Social Corporate Responsibility in Cuba. Later, another three escaped, which are currently in Curacao.
Since the 2005 the situation evolved in the following way: the first three ran away, we published it in the newspaper but there was no reaction. It was published it in Holland and appeared in the press in Curacao: it caused a scandal, the Cubans got their working hours reduced, they got days off (because sometimes they would work a whole month without a single day of rest), they were moved from the barracks (which were in such bad state they burned them), and were given rooms in the hotel, although they were four or five at supposedly double or triple rooms. Nevertheless, the conditions improved a little bit: eight-hour working day, and better food which before they said was terrible.
But then, once the situation calmed down, they started working 14 to 16 hours again, the company put more people in one room and the food quality got worse. Once again a step back. Then started the pressure, the topic was brought up in the Parliament of Curacao, and so they reduced the working hours again, and things got better. But again they forgot the issue: again the same situation, 14 to 16 working hours without the days off. Really an astonishing approach.
Cuba Futuro visited Curacao this year between the end of January and the beginning of March, and spoke with the authorities (we tried to follow the most diplomatic way, although the discussions and negotiations didn’t change anything). Thanks to the foundation a press conference was organized and things started to improve. The authorities claim it to be their own initiative, surprisingly coinciding with our activities. Another achievement were the contracts signed with the workers, providing them with at least minimum salary, which is 1200 guilders, the equivalent of 700 dollars. So, compared to 360 dollars they were earning before, now they earn more or less 700. The eight-hour working day seems to be respected, and they also have two days off after every five days of work. The only option we had was the pressure, the scandal, and the higher-level dialogue, because unfortunately the authorities of Curacao took it as a personal issue: We were trying to harm their image. They even wanted to pass a law forbidding the foreigners to express their opinions on the situation on the island. We were also threatened in other ways: by phone, by email, by all kinds of means.
I would like to speak about all workers in general, not only about the Cubans that work in Curacao, but about the Cubans in general, about the Cubans that escape.
According to the Cuban law, the Article 137 of the Cuban Penal Code called “En casos de abandono de misión o de funciones en el extranjero” (In case of abandoning the mission or the duties in abroad) a person can be sentenced to 3 to 8 years of prison. We feel there is not much solidarity with the Cubans trying to escape. For example, the same authorities of Curacao I was talking about were following certain procedures in order to hand the three last escapees over to the Cuban authorities. These were insisting they do it, telling them: “If you let these three go, you make it harder for me to control the rest.” Moreover, now they stopped granting visa from Holland to other Cubans. We can’t confirm that, since we don’t have an official declaration of the Cuban government, but we know that Luis Ángel Domínguez, the director of the Havana shipyard, and Nelson Torres, the former Minister of Sugar Industry and current director of the national shipyard company of Cuba, visited Curacao. And we know, from the sources I can’t reveal, the Cuban government adopted the following approach: “I will not pay you with money. The only way I will pay you is human work. Or you accept it, or tough luck.” That is more or less the overall picture and I would like to call for solidarity with these Cubans. For example, we attempted to have the case of these Cubans, or one of them who escaped, this time in 2006, prosecuted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He examined the case of this man, who has witnesses to prove he was persecuted, to prove the Cuban state security paid a private company to pursue him. He managed to escape thanks to the help of Venezuelan girlfriend working in a shop. They went to the shop and put the girl under so much pressure she eventually lost her job, and had to leave the island. They even threatened to beat her.
They were looking for him, he had to hide, but despite all this, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Caribbean, issued an analysis saying this can’t be considered a persecution. If this is not persecution, I would like a Human Rights expert to explain me what it is. Thank you.