Cuban Exiles Head Home for Talks with Government
HAVANA (AP) _ Dozens of Cubans who fled Fidel Castro’s communist government came home Thursday for a conference that Cuba hopes will improve relations with exile communities.
``You have to have dialogue,″ said Irene Fernandez of Key West, Fla. ``You have to have disagreements and negotiation.″
The government says at least 361 refugees, most from the United States, plan to attend the three-day conference, which begins Friday. The meeting follows a similar one in April 1994 that drew 220 emigres.
Many of the visitors said they hoped to prod the government into easing travel restrictions. Some hoped contacts would lead to more Western-style freedoms in Cuba.
For the government, the meeting is an effort to find allies _ or at least neutrals _ in the exile community, whose leaders have promoted the U.S. boycott of Cuba and are backing efforts in Congress to tighten it.
``The basic significance is to continue the dialogue,″ said Jose Cabanas, head of emigre relations at the Foreign Ministry, who did not expect the talks to bring dramatic change.
The Cuban government in its early years referred to exiles as ``worms.″ But Cuba’s attitude has softened, as has that of the emigres.
Cuba barred the most vehement anti-Castro groups from the meeting, but those attending include former members of groups that tried to topple Castro by force.
Among those arriving Thursday was Rafael Huguet, who helped found the militant anti-Castro group Alpha 66. Huguet, who lives in Miami, said he now did not expect a ``revolutionary process. It has to be an evolution.″
``There have been some changes, small ones,″ since the last meeting, he said, but complained that there had not been enough cooperation with exiles about the measures that Cuba has adopted since then.
The changes include the easing of some travel barriers and the decision in July to let Cubans living abroad _ like foreigners _ invest in Cuba and even buy property on the island.
Huguet said he would press for Cubans at home to be given the right to freely leave and return. They now need a permit or exit visa to leave.
And he said he would try to put pressure on Cuba to grant more freedom of speech.
``When we come here, we talk and we express ourselves. We make criticism of the Cuban government,″ he said. ``We are breaking the law.″
As many as 1 million Cubans live abroad, most in the United States but some in Latin America and Europe.
The money they send home to relatives has been an important source of hard currency for Cuba since its economy plummeted with the loss of Soviet aid and trade in 1990.
President Clinton tightened rules on money remittances last year in retaliation for Castro’s decision to let tens of thousands of Cubans set sail for Florida. The exodus stopped when Cuba started blocking the trips again and the United States stopped automatically admitting most Cubans picked up on the high seas.