May 19th, 2010
04:23 PM ET

Cuban migrants illegal in their own country

"I was caught because I was an illegal," explained a bicycle taxi driver as he gripped the rusted blue handle-bars of his vehicle in Havana's Central Park. "And because I'd been here several times before, I was deported back."

But the driver working his trade in the capital city did not arrive in Cuba from another country. Instead he is among the thousands who have come from rural provinces in search of work and a place to live - but who have been deported back because of "Decree 217."

The 1997 law restricts rural migration to Havana, making this taxi driver an illegal resident in his own capital city.

"If you're illegal you can't be here in Havana," said the driver, originally from Cuba's eastern Holguin province. "You don't have an address here in Havana."

The squeaky wheels of bicycle taxis usually make more noise than their drivers when the talk turns controversial in the company of an unfamiliar foreigner. But the 13-year old law has this bicycle taxi driver talking.

CNN is not naming the driver due to the sensitive nature of his residency status.

The law's passage through the island's rubber-stamp legislature came just six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the hardship that brought to Cuba during what it called the "special period."

Economic conditions were generally worse at the eastern end of the island, according to Cuba analyst Edward Gonzalez, a professor emeritus at the University of California Los Angeles.

"[The eastern region] has always been the less affluent, impoverished part of the island," he said, "heavily dependent upon agriculture, less on tourism, and also happens to be more black and mulatto."

The effort to keep migrants out and prevent overcrowding in Havana may have resulted in police discrimination against darker-skinned Cubans presumed more likely to be illegal, Gonzalez said.

"The government deported tens of thousands of people or forcibly removed them from Havana to other parts of the island," said Daniel Wilkinson, America's deputy director at Human Rights Watch. "It's just one in a series of laws that place severe restrictions on Cubans [and] how they live, where they live, and where they work."

The taxi driver said he believes when Havana police check IDs, they "like to pick on black people a little more."

The Cuban government, which has long touted racial integration as a crowning achievement of a revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959, declined to comment on internal migration or the activities of transit police. Cuba has repeatedly said its policies promote racial equality.

Article 42 of the country's constitution makes discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or place of origin, a violation of the law.

In practice, transit police check IDs in popular areas like Havana's Malecon and Central Park, flipping over the ID card to check the address.

"The police sometimes come, ask me why I'm sitting here if I don't live close by," said one man, perched on the Malecon's famed seawall that lines Havana's northern rim and practically juts out into the Caribbean.

"I just say the Malecon is a place to sit for every Cuban."

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Filed under: Cuba
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Samuel Afful

    This is really iunfair to Cubans. For me it does not make sense at all. Something should be done about it. This is modern day slavery and it is dehumanising. I pray my country Ghana would not do anything like this

    May 20, 2010 at 2:33 am | Report abuse |
  2. dave smith

    Awesome!! I've been getting Emails about how great North Korea's, Cuba, and Mexico's immigration policies are, so we should do this here. All ya'yall folks from the other 49 states stay the hell outta Texas, ya hear!

    May 21, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
  3. David

    well due to the economic blockade for well over 50 years, this is what happens. why do we trade with China, Vietnam, and even Russia? did we just ignore the cold war and move on? why is cuba such an outlaw country when we trade with these countries? it's the politics of florida and the cubans in florida holding a grudge because Castro decided to take their rich farms and houses away. They don't even have any plans to go back to Cuba. Florida is their home now. Time to lift this ridiculous ban. Why must the Cuban people suffer. Do they want a revolution and to change the government? Over time, you will change it from within. This blockade has done no good to anyone living among the general population.

    May 23, 2010 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
  4. JAMP

    At Malecon Avenue there are thousands of Cubans sitting every day, particulrly at night. . It's impossible for the Police to control all of them, so please stop misinformation and manipulation on Cuba.
    I wonder if migrants are allowed to settle, to make business or burglary in main areas of Berlin, Brussels, Hanoi or Washington D.C. Cuba is not a outlaw state, it depends from which point you see. All those "illegal" in their homeland have free access to education, health and sports, even can graduate in a University without paying a cent.
    Is that "outlaw"? What is most important, to get that or to go against the laws or regulations of a main city?
    US Gov must let all their citizens to visit Cuba freely, without punishment, so the can see and evaluate reality by themselves, not through the lens of manipulation.

    Havana, Cuba

    June 8, 2010 at 9:11 am | Report abuse |