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    More Cubans abandoning communist island in 'silent exodus'

    More Cubans abandoning communist island in 'silent exodus'
    by Patrick Lescot Sun Apr 13, 10:20 PM ET

    HAVANA (AFP) – Despite a dizzying array of reforms since Raul Castro
    took the helm of Cuba's government, 2008 looks to be a record year for
    emigration, as inhabitants abandon the communist island in droves.

    In the first half of the US fiscal year, which began on October 1,
    almost 3,000 Cubans tried to reach US shores by crossing the
    shark-infested Florida Straits, according to the US Interests Section in
    Havana. The number represents a 21 percent increase over the previous year.

    Some Cubans are abandoning the island of some 11 million inhabitants
    legally; Others leave illegally, crowded on smugglers' fastboats. Almost
    all are heading to the islands nearby arch-enemy, the United States.

    Illegal emigrants — who are returned to Cuba by US authorities if
    picked up at sea, but get to stay in the United States if they reach US
    soil — are joined another 20,000 Cubans to whom the Interests Section
    grants legal immigrant visas here every year, under the immigration
    accords Havana and Washington struck in 1994 and 1995.

    And to their total one can add some 10,000 who hand themselves to US
    authorities at the Mexican border.

    US authorities estimate that some 35,000 Cubans will arrive to stay this
    year in the United States, which grants them immediate residency and
    working rights for fleeing communism. It does not do the same for
    Chinese or Vietnamese immigrants.

    Cuba charges that the US policy granting Cubans special benefits
    encourages dangerous and potentially deadly illegal migration.

    The number of Cubans who additionally are departing for Europe and Latin
    American countries is not known.

    Far from tapering off, what often is described as a "silent exodus" has
    actually picked up since Raul Castro took the reins of government —
    officially as president in February, and for over a year as interim
    leader before then — although his government has introduced a steady
    stream of minor reforms aimed at eliminating unpopular restrictions and
    boosting economic efficiency.

    With calm weather at sea, illegal departures by sea were up sharply in
    February and March, from 219 to 412, US data show. Most of those picked
    up at sea are between 19 and 35, US Interests Section figures show.

    Indeed, fully 70 percent of Cubans who made the crossing to the United
    States did so with smugglers, paying 8,000-10,000 dollars per person,
    the section's data showed.

    Witnesses say the smugglers' craft sometimes even set out in broad
    daylight from isolated locations including on the Island of Youth,
    witnesses say.

    In addition, the United States now is stepping up a family reunification
    program for Cubans who want to go live with US-based relatives.
    Paperwork that had been taking up to seven to 10 years now can take as
    little as a few weeks. There are some 1.5 million Cuban-Americans,
    including immigrants and their US-born descendants.

    Many of them send remittance funds back to Cuba to help their families
    make ends meet; Cubans earn an average of the equivalent of less than 20
    dollars a month and those living abroad send home about one billion
    dollars a year.

    Earlier this month, access to appliances such as microwaves and
    computers was just the latest of some traditional "bans" to be dumped by
    Raul Castro, 76, five weeks after taking over permanently from his
    81-year-old brother Fidel, who did not seek reelection.

    The Raul Castro government also has dropped its controversial ban on
    Cubans staying in hotels reserved for the tourists who generate the
    lion's share of the Caribbean island's hard currency. Some rights groups
    had dubbed the policy "tourist apartheid."

    The change is expected to be welcomed by Cubans living abroad who come
    home for visits and want to treat relatives to hotel stays, although
    locals are unlikely to be stampeding for rooms that can cost up to 300
    dollars a night.

    The government also has moved to try to boost farm output with some
    small reform steps, and said it would allow Cubans who are renting homes
    from state employers to gain title to them that can be passed on to
    their heirs.

    On April 14, all Cubans for the first time will be allowed to sign
    contracts for cell (mobile) phones, and will be able to reach friends
    and relatives in the United States and beyond.

    Cuba watchers say there is likely a short-term political benefit of
    allowing greater economic openness, though they also warn many changes
    in the Americas' only centrally-controlled, one-party regime could build
    pressure for more change than the government is prepared to allow.

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20080414/wl_afp/cubareformpoliticsmigration_080414022007

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