A curious silence has descended over the highly publicized defections of 25 Cubans during the Pope's recent visit to Toronto.The defections are a huge embarrassment for Cuba, coming as they do in the wake of another high-profile defection -- that of Alcibiades Hidalgo, formerly Cuba's top-ranking official at the UN.
But, while it's easy to sympathize with political activists or dissident writers detained for their criticisms of the Cuban government -- and Canada has taken in its share -- it's a little harder to evaluate the religious persecution being alleged by this current group of evacuees.
A filmmaker acquaintance of mine from the island who now lives in Canada thinks this is a harsh analysis.
She argues that the psychological stress that comes from not being able to freely express opinions amounts to repression.
"You have to fake so much, from the time you wake up till the time you go to bed at night," she says. "No one can bear that."
But U of T prof David Welch, an expert in Cuban foreign affairs, says the fear of persecution based on religion "is not going to work very well with the refugee board. Catholics in Cuba are not persecuted any more, not like they were in the 60s."
Are these really economic refugees, then? It's a ticklish situation.
Welch says both the Cuban and Canadian governments would like nothing more than "to sweep the whole affair under the rug. Quite frankly, I'd be very surprised if either of them takes any official notice of it."
Indeed, there has been no official reaction from the Cuban government or Cuban officials at the embassy in Ottawa. Repeated requests from NOW for comment have gone unanswered.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry in Ottawa is saying little beyond the usual diplomatic niceties. Citizenship and Immigration spokespeople are not commenting beyond setting out procedural matters and eligibility guidelines.
Despite repeated condemnations at the UN of Cuba's human rights record, this country has been somewhat reluctant to buy the line of a good percentage of Cubans seeking refugee status.
Of 683 refugee claims filed by Cubans since 1999, 406 have been granted. That's just under 60 per cent.
But Ottawa may yet get off the hook.
As of last Friday, seven of the defectors had attempted to enter the U.S. Two -- one a doctor, the other a dentist -- have been detained. Sources in the Cuban community here suggest the other five have gotten through, but it's not clear if that's true. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service did not return NOW's call.
According to another source, U.S. relatives of at least two defectors have travelled to Toronto and returned to the U.S. with the defectors.
It seems likely that more will follow, since most of the defectors here have family south of the border and as a result would not have to go through as rigorous a screening process in the U.S.
Stateside, the political wheels already seem to be in motion.
Florida congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, whose office deals daily with internal opposition in Cuba, has been in regular contact with the Canadian ambassador in Washington, DC.
There, embassy spokesperson Pam Lambo would not say whether diplomatic initiatives are being made behind the scenes to clear the way for the defectors to move to the U.S. But neither would she deny that such moves might be made.
"There may be some accommodation," Lambo says. "But even if there were, I wouldn't be able to tell you because of the confidentiality. Obviously, it's sensitive."
It's emerging that it may have been the intention of the defectors all along to make their way to the U.S.
Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation president Joe Garcia says he was aware there would be defections even before the Pope's visit -- although he's not willing to get into the details publicly.
The group, which has remained in regular contact with the families of the defectors in the U.S, has been sending money and provisions and has plans to send a lawyer to Toronto to offer legal advice.
On the other hand, Ismael Sambra, president of the Cuba Canadian National Foundation, the group that's been speaking for the defectors here, says he first heard of the plans after Cubans arrived and contacted members of his board and safe houses were arranged.
Sambra finds the silence from Cuban officials both here and in Havana ominous. He notes that the Cuban government has done everything in its power in the past to return defectors to Cuba, including kidnappings.
"That's the Cuban style," he says.
This time, though, everyone involved seems content to let things drop off the radar firstname.lastname@example.org