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Tuesday, August 3, 1999 Published at 18:46 GMT 19:46 UK

World: Americas

Why Cubans defect

Cubans sing their national anthem, but many in their ranks want out

By Jonathan Fryer

Baseball pitcher Danyz Baes is the eighth Cuban athlete to have defected during the Pan-American Games taking place in Winnepeg, Canada.

His asylum claim will provide significant ammunition to Cuban exile groups and US politicians who maintain that Mr Castro keeps his people in a state of penury and virtual imprisonment.

[ image: Fidel Castro: Criticised by the US for human rights abuses]
Fidel Castro: Criticised by the US for human rights abuses
It is difficult for most Cubans to travel abroad, and wages in Cuba are extremely low.

Even a top baseball player in Cuba usually earns only about $20 a month - though it is hard to give exact dollar equivalents, because basics such as housing and essential foodstuffs are subsidised, and services such as health and education are mainly free.

In the United States, of course, baseball stars can earn millions.

And over the years, financial inducements have encouraged several top Cuban players to defect.

Fleeing for freedom

However, career opportunities are not the only reason some people leave Cuba.

Many Cubans saw their living standards plummet following the end of beneficial aid-and-trade deals with the old Soviet bloc from 1990 onwards.

[ image: Cuban defectors arrive in Miami]
Cuban defectors arrive in Miami
And according to a report published a fortnight ago by the independent US-based human rights group Human Rights Watch, Cubans are denied many fundamental rights.

"The Cuban penal code includes provisions ... under which some of the most fundamental expressions of dissent from the current government viewpoint can be prosecuted as crimes against state security," said Sarah De Cosse, the report's author.

In January this year, several Cuban laws were tightened, including those covering association between Cubans and foreign tourists on the islands.

The authorities say that was to curb prostitution and other crime, but many Cubans see the new measures as further limitations on their freedoms.

Confusing messages from America

Anti-Communist propaganda is broadcast to Cuba from Florida, and many exiles there support efforts to assist other Cubans to flee the island.

Over the years, tens of thousands of Cubans have done so, many on small boats and other, even less sea-worthy craft.

Under the present US laws, any Cuban who successfully arrives on dry land in the United States can claim asylum.

But increasingly, coastguards intercept and turn back those who are caught off-shore.

One such action at the end of June caused a huge political row in Florida, as exiles called for coastguards to let intercepted refugees free.

Turning away Cuban refugees is only one of the many paradoxes in the US-Cuban relationship.

The US keeps up a barrage of criticism against Mr Castro's regime, and has been operating a trade embargo against the island for over 30 years.

Yet plans are now afoot to begin charter flights to Cuba from New York and Los Angeles.

And an American drugs company has been given a government licence to develop a meningitis vaccine jointly with Cuba.

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