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Cuba: Papal visit followed by lifting of restrictions on flights and remittances

Two months after Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba, the Clinton administration announced that it would lift some restrictions on contact with the island first introduced in 1996. The bans on flights and remittances were already widely circumvented. Hundreds of US Cubans travelled to Cuba for the papal visit.

In January Pope John Paul II made a five-day visit to Cuba. He met with Castro, following the Cuban leader's invitation extended on his own visit to the Vatican in 1996. 100,000 people attended an open-air Mass in Santa Clara. He spoke against abortion and in favour of better wages and the strengthening of family life in Cuba. His speeches also called for an end to the US embargo on Cuba. The Pope held a Mass in the Plaza of the Revolution, where Castro himself usually delivers his speeches. There he praised the country's patron saint, Our Lady of Charity El Cobre and called upon her to unite Cubans wherever they were. He aimed to spread a spirit of forgiveness and peace among islanders and exiles alike.

The events were attended by thousands of Cubans and Cubans resident or exiled in the USA who had returned for the occasion. Hundreds of Cuban exiles came as pilgrims, on flights sponsored by churches from Florida, New York and Puerto Rico. Press interviews with the returnees found evidence of both a longing to return for good and a painful sense of loss stemming from a realisation that they would never go back. It is estimated that 1 million Cubans, a tenth of the island's population, left the country for the United States

In advance of the papal visit a coalition of exile organizations and dissident groups published the 'Agreement for Democracy', describing the conditions under which Cuba could abandon Communism and accept democracy. As well as calling for elections, freedom of speech and amnesty for political prisoners, the group affirmed that all Cubans on the island and in the diaspora were a single nation. Opinions on how to deal with Castro are divided among Cuban exile groups. Brothers to the Rescue, who fly over the Florida straits searching for people fleeing on rafts and the Democracy Movement both signed the accord. The agreement was opposed by the Cuban American National Foundation on the grounds that it did not specifically exclude Fidel and Raul Castro from any future government. Their own published plan called for the removal of the brothers. More militant paramilitary groups such as Commandos L and Alpha 66 did not sign the agreement.

In March, President Clinton announced his intention to relax restrictions on direct flights to Cuba, donations of medicine and clothes to the island and remittances. The White House wanted to be seen to respond to the change in mood within Cuba. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met the Pope in Rome on March 7th. Government officials claimed that the move would increase the status of the Roman Catholic church in Cuba as well as lessen the state's hold over welfare. It would also sideline Castro, they claimed. The ban on flights was imposed in 1996 following the shooting down of two planes flown by Brothers to the Rescue. The decision to rescind the order divided Congress, being welcomed by Massachusetts politicians, four of whom had flown to Cuba for the Pope's visit, and rejected by others, including Senator Torricelli from New Jersey, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart from Florida and Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen from Miami. Catholic Relief Services holds $1 million worth of insulin for Cuba, which it had intended flying via Canada, but which could now go direct. The Cuban American National Foundation supported the provisions for food and medicine, but not the flights and remittances. Brothers to the Rescue were angered by the lifting of sanctions. The Cuban government welcomed the lifting of restrictions but also called for the full removal of the trade embargo.

The embargo causes friction between the US and Canada, Mexico and the European Union. Trade and investment bans remain in place under the provisions of the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, despite opposition from the US Chamber of Commerce.

It is estimated that US Cubans send $800 million a year of money to Cuba via third countries, mainly in violation of US Treasury rules. The new rules would allow each household to send $1,200 per year. Family members will also be able to visit one another. Telephone traffic was opened up in 1992. At present, more than 80,000 Cuban-Americans visit Cuba each year, paying extra for flights via third countries. The 1996 ban on flights failed to stop the movement. The ban on remittances was also widely circumvented.

A report in November by the UN's Economic Commission on Latin America found evidence for a sharp rise in remittances to Cuba in 1995 and 1996: in 1990 $100 million, in 1993 $300 million and in 1995 $600 million. These figures are in comparison with the country's gross export earnings from sugar ($1 billion), tourism ($1.4 billion) and foreign investment ($200 million). According to the report, the net flow of dollars for tourism was only $400 million, and for sugar $500 million, both sums smaller than the estimates for remittances. It is reckoned that half of Cuba's families receive cash or food from abroad. Dollars were legalised on the island in 1993, and the towns are full of dollar-only stores. Most of the money comes from recent post-1980 arrivals rather than the earlier streams of exiles and refugees. Remittances have been criticised by Castro.

Within the US Cuban community, there were signs of the hard line taken against anyone expressing positive support for increased relations with Cuba weakening. Many followed the Pope's visit on TV. But one Miami Catholic church was forced to cancel a planned cruise ship visit to Cuba for the Pope's following protest. The Archbishop of Miami attended the papal visit, but the Cuba-American community remains divided over contacts with the regime and with the country itself. It is estimated that there are over half a million Cuban-American Catholics in Miami, where churches continue to process a statue of Our Lady of Charity brought from Cuba in the 1960s.

Cuban exiles unveil manifesto for democracy, Reuters, 14.1.98; Papal trip defining moment for Cuban Catholics in U.S., David Briggs, Associated Press, 17.1.98; Cuban exiles undertake religious pilgrimage to homeland, Eddie Dominguez, Associated Press, 21.1.98; Pope holds historic meeting with Castro, Agence France Presse English Wire, 23.1.98; Cuban exiles meet those left behind, Diego Ribadeneira, Boston Globe 25.1.98; Pope's Cuba visit fosters attitude shift, Mike Clary, Los Angeles Times 28.2.98; U.S. expected to ease Cuban embargo, Carol Giacomo, Reuters 19.3.98; Clinton will announce lifting of ban on flights, remittances, David L. Marcus, Boston Globe Staff 20.3.98; U.S. to ease some curbs against Cuba, Thomas W. Lippman, Washington Post 20.3.98; Cuban Americans watch, wonder, hope, Eric Slater and Julkia Scheeres, Los Angeles Times 23.1.98; Cuban-Americans divided In Miami, White House move stirs range of reactions, Teresa Mears, Boston Globe 20.3.98; Cuba says U.S. moves 'drop of water in desert', Reuters Wire 20.3.98; A look at myths of Cuba, Ernest H. Preeg, Washington Post 2.11.97; Exiles prop up Cuban economy by sending money to families, Roxana Hegeman, Associated Press, 27.11.97

Kurds, Turkey, the EU and Schengen

The arrival of over 1,000 Kurdish refugees in Italy sparked off rows between the EU and Turkey, and among EU countries over their immigration and border policies.

In January Goc Der, a Kurdish migrants' organization in Istanbul, called upon Turkey to rebuild the Kurdish region and allow Kurds to return. There are estimated to be 2 million Kurds in Istanbul, many of whom have fled fighting in the south east. At least 28,000 have died since 1984 when the PKK, the Kurdistan's People's Party, began a campaign of violent opposition to Turkish government in the country's south east: about 3,000 villages have been evacuated in the fighting. Five million of Turkey's 8-12 million Kurds live in the region; 4 million live in western Turkey, others in Syria, Iraq and Iran. Turkey accuses Syria and Iran of backing the PKK, and alleges that Greece is tolerating PKK 'terrorists' training there.

In February the Turkish army announced that it had finally crushed the rebellion in the south east and declared that the PKK was a spent force. The army began to distribute aid packages to the region's villages. The PKK retorted that it had suspended operations for the winter. A ban on Kurdish language on television and in education remains in place.

It is thought that another one million Kurds belong to the diaspora in European countries. This may include 700,000 in Germany, 120,000 in France and large communities in Scandinavia.

In January the arrival by boast of 1,200 Kurdish refugees in Italy provoked disputes between EU countries and Turkey, but also within the EU. There were rumours that as many as 20,000 Kurds were planning to leave for Europe, paying up to $3,900 each for passage. It is thought that over 10,000 Kurds from Turkey and Iraq have entered the EU illegally since the start of 1997. Under pressure form the EU and Germany in particular, Turkey clamped down on people leaving the country as refugees, arresting Kurds as they boarded boats. One vessel was detained upon arrival in Greece, after 3 people had drowned in the crossing. The German Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, insisted that Turkey tighten up its policies on departures.

Although 7 EU countries signed an agreement in Rome to deal with the refugees, the Turkish chief of police complained that the Europeans had failed to lay the blame on the PKK. Turkey denied signing the agreement. The Turkish authorities regard the flow as a criminal matter, not about political refugees, and blames the PKK for the organised smuggling of people into Europe. The PKK accuses Turkey of causing the crisis in order to depopulate the south east.

The arrival of the Kurdish refugees in Italy coincided with a further stage in the Schengen accord, by which the majority of EU countries are seeking to harmonise their external controls over immigration and asylum policy and lift internal border checks. Italy was heavily criticised for dealing with refugees and illegal immigrants in an ineffective way. Austria reinstated its border checks with Italy and increased border personnel only a month after signing the Schengen accord. German politicians chided Italy and accused the government of trying to pass on refugees to other countries. Some regional German politicians called for a suspension of the accord.

The Schengen agreement facilities exchange of information between European countries on refugees and immigrants. In December Italy and France authorities closed down a network smuggling people into the continent. The panic over Kurds spurred on moves to increase border controls at the EU border. These include mandatory finger-printing of persons without complete documentation and instant deportation. Italy responded and rescinded the 15 days grace period it allowed illegal immigrants to leave the country. German authorities also accused Greece of failing to patrol its borders. Italian police arrested Kurdish refugees on their way to Germany at several locations throughout the country. The French Interior Minister blamed the creation of 'safe havens' in northern Iraq.

In February German courts sentenced Kani Yilmaz, former spokesman of the PKK, to seven years for firebombings of Turkish properties in Germany in 1993: having already served time in detention he was released. Yilmaz was arrested in London in 1994. Germany now recognises the PKK as a criminal organization and not a terrorist group, and authorities are still searching for 18 activists. Turkey reacted angrily to the redesignation of the PKK, which remains banned in Germany. The chief of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, agreed to abide by German laws in 1996, since when arson attacks on Turkish targets had declined considerably. Nonetheless, the German authorities accuse the PKK of dealing in weapons, extortion and false documents.

The Austrian office of the Kurdistan National Liberation Front (ERNK), the political wing of the PKK, called on the country to end investment in Turkey until the resolution of the Kurdish question. ERNK's headquarters is in Brussels.

Europe tightens borders against fleeing Kurdish refugees, Agence France Presse English Wire, 3.1.98; Kurdish influx test Schengen open border accords, Bertrand Bollenbach, Agence France Presse English Wire, 3.1.98; Kurdish question on international scene since 1920s, Ceyhun Erguven, Agence France Presse English Wire 6.1.98; EU passport-free regime buckles, Ian Traynor and Helena Smith, The Guardian, 6.1.98; Europe, Turkey dispute fault over Kurdish exodus, Agence France Presse English Wire, 9.1.98; EU police chiefs meet on migrants, John Hooper, The Guardian 9.1.98; Pro-Kurdish group calls on Turkey to rebuild south-east, Agence France Presse English Wire, 12.1.98; Turkish army says Kurdish rebellion crushed, Umit Enginsoy, Agence France Presse English Wire, 20.2.98; Kurdish separatists call on Austria to end investment in Turkey, Agence France Presse English Wire, 11.1.98; Germany tries to soothe Turkey over lifting "terrorist" label from Kurd group, Agence France Presse English Wire, 16.1.98; German court sentences Kurdish separatist to seven years, Agence France Presse English Wire, 11.2.98; Kurdish rebels get bomb-making lessons from Greece: Turkey, Agence France Presse English Wire, 28.3.98


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