At Edges of Elian's Spotlight Are Other Divided Families
| Jose Cohen at a coffee shop in
Miami. His family is still in Cuba.
| Lazara Brito and her children, Isaac, left,
Yanelis and Yamila, are
waiting to join Jose Cohen, who left Havana in 1994. Brito says
they are being harassed because her husband was a govt. official.
By DAVID GONZALEZ
Brito and her three children huddled over the kitchen table in their Havana
apartment on a recent day and thumbed through a pile
of letters and drawings. These scraps of paper have been the only physical link to Ms. Brito's husband, José Cohen, who left Cuba on a raft
in 1994 and has been waiting in vain for them to join him in Miami.
"The important thing in life is not what you know or who you know," Ms.Brito read from one letter, "but who you are."
That may be the
cause of her family's plight, since her husband used to work for the Ministry
of the Interior gathering intelligence on foreign
investors interested in doing business in Cuba. And so the government considers him a deserter, or worse.
Brito and her children have had United States visas since 1998, she said
the Cuban government had retaliated against her husband
by not allowing them to emigrate and subjecting them to harassment and intimidation.
The Cohens are
among hundreds of Cuban families stuck in a limbo of politics and bureaucracy,
holding travel documents that remain useless
without exit visas from the government. Many of them had become even more frustrated over the situation in recent months as they watched the
daily Cuban protests demanding the return of Elián González to his father in Cuba.
"It has been
almost six years since he left," Ms. Brito said of her husband. "Since
then, the whole family has felt the full rancor of the officials. I see
all the worry over the child Elián and I ask, where is the love for my children, because for six years my children have been paying for the
rancor against my husband."
officials had no exact figures on how many families were being kept apart,
but they said that last year approximately 1,700
people with valid travel documents for the United States were unable to leave Cuba.
For some, like
the Cohens, the delay is political. Many are held up by what foreign diplomats
said were excessive Cuban fees for medical
exams and administrative costs -- as much as $1,000 a person in an economy in which the average salary is $10 a month. Other cases
languish because a noncustodial parent refuses to give permission for his child to leave the country, or because the would-be immigrant is a
professional who must first fulfill a work commitment in return for education.
"It is a big
aspect of this whole Cuban trauma," said Max Castro, a senior research
analyst at the University of Miami. "This is a good
moment to reflect on it and for the various parties to be more consistent. There is no doubt that the Cuban government in the past has not been as
solicitous as it is now on the issue of family unification."
Mr. Cohen, who
now lives in a suburb north of Miami and runs an Internet business, said
in an interview: "The regime gives you no option
but to be with them or against them. People ask me, did I not know what would happen? Yes. But I did not know the regime would have such a
Since her family
obtained the United States visas, Ms. Brito said, she has written direct
appeals to Fidel Castro and other high-ranking officials,
asking that her children not be forced to pay for their father's actions. All she has had in return, she said, are letters saying her pleas have been sent
to other government agencies.
years ago, security agents roused her from bed, searched her apartment
and, as her children and another relative watched, whisked
her off to jail for two days. One of her daughters found a note under the front door that said: "You will never leave. Forget it."
Ms. Brito's younger daughter, Yamila, 13, was sent from her school to take
part in one of the large public rallies the government
organized to call for Elián's return. Her older daughter, Yanelis, who is now 16, was asked to leave school last year when administrators
discovered she had a visa for the United States.
said they had not forced anyone to leave Cuba, so they could not be accused
of splitting up families. Ricardo Alarcón, the leader
of Cuba's National Assembly, said the Cohen case involved a political defector who knew what he was doing.
"I imagine he left his children here," he said. "Nobody took them away from him. He left them here."
officials said the delays were a continuing topic during the regular migration
talks they held with their Cuban counterparts. They
are also raised in individual complaints lodged by American diplomats in Havana, who seldom receive answers.
"It can be a
long time," said one State Department official familiar with several cases.
"It sort of compounds the tragedy, too, because when
these people go to apply for exit permits, they lose their jobs, or their kids have problems getting into college preparatory schools."
That was what
Estella Natal, a language teacher in New York, discovered while waiting
for her Cuban husband, Joel Prince, a doctor,
to join her. She had met Dr. Prince on a trip to Cuba in 1996, and they married two years later. At the time he was working as a prison doctor.
"He was fired
from that job days after we were married," Ms. Natal said. "Then he got
a job doing medical surveys, then at a neighborhood clinic
and then as a paramedic. The thing is, a lot of places do not want to hire him or he does not get good training because they know he is going to
leave eventually. So, he gets the leftover jobs."
Ms. Natal said
her husband might have to work for several more years before he would be
allowed to leave. She added that recent
appointments he had been given to process his documents had been postponed because workers at the immigration office had to attend the
public rallies for Elián.
"This whole custody
battle is hampering everything," she said. "It's not just Elián.
Elián is a symbol for the rest of us. He is really a symbol of
families being divided, of a lot of politics coming between families."
was the impetus for a recently formed Miami exile group, New Generation
Cuba, which includes Mr. Cohen among its founders.
The group, which portrays itself as a mix of American- and Cuban-raised exiles, met with State Department officials recently to press the cases of
14 separated families.
The group's leaders
said they knew of about 200 cases, but had yet to document them all. They
said some other families were reluctant to have
contact with the group because they feared reprisals against relatives in Cuba.
has separated families for 41 years through death and bureaucracy," said
Bettina Rodríguez Aguilera, the group's president,
whose own father was imprisoned in Cuba for 14 years while she was growing up in the United States. "The only person destroying families in
and out of Cuba is Fidel Castro."
But some political
analysts said that while family unification was an important issue, it
was different from the issue in the Elián González case.
In the boy's case, they say, the issue is the rights of a surviving parent rather than the political control of immigration.
"There is a relation,
but they are not identical," said Mr. Castro of the University of Miami.
"There is reason to question the Cuban government
on these cases and ask them to reflect and be consistent on their view of families."
But he also said
that efforts like those of New Generation Cuba appeared to be hastily organized
and that the group risked losing
credibility if it was seen as manipulating Elián's plight for political purposes.
"They are taking
a real issue and using it in a way that may be more of a disservice to
the cause because it is taken as something very
opportunistic," Mr. Castro said. "It should be a continuing conversation and a demand, not something that is all of a sudden deployed."
But for Mr. Cohen's
family, there is a sense of hope that someone has taken up their cause.
In the family's spartan apartment -- Ms. Brito
started giving away their belongings in anticipation of a move -- his children practice English, just as their father asks them to in his letters.
"I am far from
you now," he wrote in English to Yanelis, his oldest daughter. "But my
soul is with you and you are in my heart." He added in
Spanish, "Learn this."
but in Spanish: "Once we are together, that will be the greatest. Here
we are feeling different from all the others because we do
not have the family that all human beings want. We ask, when will it reach the hearts of those men who stop us from being with our father?"