Cuban political prisoners were sent to Venezuela through secret deal
BY CASTO OCANDO
Thousands of political prisoners and dissidents in Cuba were relocated to Venezuela under a secret arrangement negotiated in 1975 by the Caracas and Havana governments, several participants say.
The agreement was hatched in 1975, one year after Venezuela reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba that had been suspended in 1960. By 1977, the first contingent of Cubans began to arrive and would be followed by an estimated 23,000, including several who had been serving prison sentences of up to 30 years, the participants added.
The arrangement was part of ''a constant policy of Venezuelan democracy to defend human rights in Cuba,'' said Simon Alberto Consalvi, the former Venezuelan foreign minister who coordinated efforts with the Cuban exile community at the time.
''We were able to remove an important group of political prisoners from Cuba, and also at times when there were many asylum-seekers at the Venezuelan Embassy in Havana, we were also able to prevent them from being turned in.'' recalled Consalvi, who in 1974, as Venezuela's U.N. ambassador, negotiated the reestablishment of diplomatic relationships with then Cuban Ambassador Ricardo Alarcón.
Venezuela today has one of the largest Cuban exile communities in Latin America.
The program was negotiated by the administration of Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who took office in 1974. Pérez, now 86, lives in Miami.
It reached its highest level under President Luis Herrera Campins, who succeeded Pérez.
The first list of candidates for expatriation to Venezuela was drawn up by Mario Escoto, a former Cuban political prisoner, according to participants. Escoto deliverred the list to the Pérez government with the help of Aureliano Sánchez Arango, a former Venezuelan minister of education who was a close friend of Pérez.
The objective was for the Venezuelan government to ''request the expatriation of former prisoners and political prisoners, since by then it was senseless to maintain so many thousands of Cubans in prison,'' said Alfredo Sánchez, a former political prisoner who had served a 14-year sentence and was on parole at the time of his move to Venezuela.
The list snowballed until there were more than 3,000 dissidents and their relatives, recalled Vikín Meso, who became one of the project's coordinators when he arrived in Caracas in 1978.
''One day, a security agent arrived to our house to tell us that we had to leave immediately to Venezuela on a plane. In less than a day, they gave us passports and exit visas,'' recalled Gladys Chinea de Sanchez, 69, who in 1978 left Cuba with her husband, Alfredo, and their family for a new life in Venezuela.
As about 50 Cubans began arriving each week under the agreement -- some of the former prisoners aboard a Venezuelan presidential aircraft -- Cuban exiles already in Venezuela organized to help their compatriots.
''We helped to consolidate the Cubans that began arriving to the country through several homes that we rented,'' said Meso, 84, who still lives in Venezuela.
The Venezuelan government also provided temporary shelter in a high school, and later rented spacious homes in eastern Caracas to house the newly arriving Cubans. Both the government and private businesses offered jobs to the Cubans.
The relocation program was expanded under Herrera Campins, due in part to the added activism of the growing Cuban exile community in Venezuela.
`A SPECIAL PROGRAM'
''When Luis Herrera came to power, a special program was created to give sense to the visas, because until then there was no official policy about the topic,'' noted Joaquín Pérez Rodríguez, a Cuban Venezuelan who negotiated with Havana on the relocations.
He added that during Herrera Campins' five years in power, Venezuela received more than 20,000 Cubans.
''We focused on former prisoners, because they had a very hard life in Cuba. They were political dissidents and for that reason could not get jobs, or could only get the lowest-level work; they couldn't study at a university,'' Pérez Rodríguez said.
Candidates for relocation were selected by a committee composed of dissidents on the island and exiles in Venezuela. But the lists were later ''purged'' by the Venezuelan intelligence service then presided over by José Vásquez Blanco, a Cuban exile.
''We were trying to prevent the Cuban government from infiltrating spies
into the exile community in Venezuela,'' Pérez Rodríguez