The 28 Cuban refugees, mostly men with a few women and children, were part of a group of 44 Cubans captured at sea by the United States Coast Guard in recent years while trying to reach the United States. They were held at the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
Cuban dissidents have said some of the refugees were activists persecuted for opposing the Communist government of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. There are currently still over 200 political prisoners in Cuba, who are generally held under "inhumane and degrading" conditions, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), a platform of dissidents. Among those inmates are many Christians, BosNewsLife established.
Hungarian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lajos Szelestey told BosNewsLife that the Cubans arrived in Hungary under an agreement with Washington. "All in all, 28 people arrived to Hungary because the Hungarian government accepted the request of the US administration," he said. "And the decision was approved by all five parliamentary parties in Hungary."
Cuba has condemned that decision, calling Hungary a "lackey" of the US. In a statement, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said the government of Hungary acted "as an accomplice of the American empire" and is waiting for a reward. The Cuban statement said Havana resists "the empire and despises the lackey."
Calls to the Cuban embassy in Budapest went unanswered. Spokesman Szelestey however rejected the Cuban accusations saying only humanitarian reasons were behind Hungary’s move to accept the refugees. It came after seventeen of the refugees reportedly held a three-week hunger strike in August to protest alleged poor conditions at Guantanamo, and the unwillingness of US authorities to grant them asylum.
"The Hungarian side explained [to Cuba] that Hungary was and would be prepared to take any refugees on the basis of humanity. They fled Cuba, and were captured on the sea and taken to Guantanamo, as far as I know nearly or more than three years ago," Szelestey said.
Those who land on US shores are generally allowed to stay, while Cubans picked up at sea have been taken to Guantanamo. Cuban migrants who demonstrate a fear of persecution if repatriated are held at Guantanamo while the US government negotiates with other countries to grant them asylum, including Hungary.
One senior aid worker warned however it will take time for the Cubans to adjust to Hungarian society. The office manager of the Christian organization Hungarian Baptist Aid, David Gal, explained to BosNewsLife that his group will help the refugees find housing and jobs and adapt to Hungarian culture. Gal said the Cubans will receive counseling in a temporary shelter his group and immigration authorities run in the small town of Bicske, about 30 kilometers west of Budapest.
"They will be helped by social workers and also counselors because these people obviously went through some shock. So, we have recruited some Spanish speaking counselors and social workers who will be with them to help them in the whole situation of moving, arriving in a new country and so forth," Gal said.
He did know not how many allegedly persecuted Christians were among the Cuban refugees. "They arrived early in the morning and they were extremely tired so they went to bed immediately. There was very little conversation at this point. But we hope to find out very much about them in the coming days."
Hungarian officials have released few details about the refugees, citing security concerns. However Hungary’s decision to accept the Cubans, is a far cry from the Communist-era when it was part of the Soviet block, which had a close relationship with Cuba.
Hungary also hosts the Center for Democratic Transition in Budapest, aimed at improving democratic reforms in Communist and other current and former autocratic nations. The Hungarian Foreign Ministry has said that Hungary is formulating its Cuba policy in line with the common stance adopted by the European Union, which the country joined in 2004.
The EU has been seeking to support democratic reforms and human rights and Hungary said it wants to maintain "a critical dialogue" with the island’s government, and build extensive relations with Non Governmental Organization and Cuba’s "peaceful" opposition. (Part of this BosNewsLife story also airs on the Voice of America (VOA) network. www.voanews.com). Listen to Bos report (mp3)