BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
Former Cuban political prisoners and relatives living in Spain will be allowed to come to the United States swiftly under a special parole program, a senior State Department official announced Monday.
The ex-prisoners' applications for U.S. entry will be processed on a case-by-case basis but are expected to take an average of about one month, the official added.
Most of the 36 recently released prisoners and scores of relatives in Spain want to move to the United States, but normal U.S. migration procedures bar that because they already have safe haven in Spain.
The Homeland Security and State Departments therefore agreed to allow them entry under the Significant Public Benefit Parole (SPBP) Program, said the official, who under State Department rules could not be identified or quoted directly.
SPBP has been used in the past to allow U.S. entry to people such as Colombian labor activists and Iraqis who fear for their lives, the official told El Nuevo Herald in a telephone briefing from Washington.
Consular officials at the U.S. embassy in Madrid have reached out to many of the the former political prisoners to inform them of the program's eligibility and other requirements, the official said.
At least one application already is being processed and several other former political prisoners will be interviewed this week, he added. SPBP allows the new arrivals to quickly receive work permits and eventually residency.
Former political prisoner Normando Hernández confirmed from Madrid that U.S. consular officials have requested information from the ex-prisoners and relatives, but seemed unclear on the details.
“We don't know under what conditions'' they would be granted U.S. entry,'' he told El Nuevo by telephone, “What we want is that all the families be able to go as political refugees.''
“You are making very happy and sad, because we know we will be a burden to our families'' in the United States, Hernandez added when told some of information from the State Department official.
Cuban ruler Raúl Castro promised on July 7 to release 52 political prisoners, the last still in jail from a 2003 crackdown that sentenced 75 peaceful dissidents to prison terms of up to 28 years.
Thirty-six were already freed in several small groups after they agreed to leave directly from prison to the Havana airport and a flight to Spain, along with several relatives each. Another three have agreed to leave but are waiting for space on Madrid-bound jetliners.
Many of newly arrived Cubans in Spain have complained of their poor housing conditions, uncertainties about their legal status in Spain and the stipends they receive to cover their expenses.
Twelve other jailed dissidents have said they will refuse to leave Cuba, but are expected to be freed in the next month as part of Castro's July 7 agreement with the Cuban Catholic church and the Spanish government.
Former political prisoners still in Cuba can apply for U.S. entry at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, although that process usually takes several months.
The State Department official said the decision to allow in the Cubans from Spain was a recognition that the freed dissidents should have a choice on where they live, and is in keeping with the Obama administration's goal of helping Cuban family reunifications.
Parole is a special immigration category under which foreign nationals who otherwise would not be immediately eligible for U.S. entry can be admitted into the country.
In 2006, the Bush administration established the Cuban Medical Professional Parole (CMPP) program to allow in Cuban medical personnel who defect while assigned to work in third countries.
The CMPP program requires the applicants to be Cuban citizens, “conscripted'' by the Havana government to work or study in a third country and have no ineligibilities that would prevent admission into the United States, according to a State Department Web page.
Julio Cesar Alfonso, president of Solidaridad sin Fronteras, a Miami organization of Cuban doctors, estimated in 2008 that 6,000 doctors had defected in the previous five years.
About 5,000 were already in the United States, Alfonso added but it was not clear how many of those had arrived under the Cuban Medical Parole Program.