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Cuban migrants illegal in their own country

By David Ariosto, CNN
  • Rural Cubans who move to the capital Havana become illegal migrants
  • Tens of thousands have been deported back to their home villages
  • At Havana's famed Malecon's seawall police check identity cards

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- "I was caught because I was an illegal," explained a bicycle taxi driver as he gripped the rusted blue handle-bars of his vehicle in Havana's Central Park. "And because I'd been here several times before, I was deported back."

But the driver working his trade in the capital city did not arrive in Cuba from another country. Instead he is among the thousands who have come from rural provinces in search of work and a place to live -- but who have been deported back because of "Decree 217."

The 1997 law restricts rural migration and was designed to prevent overcrowding in Havana, a major problem in cities across Latin America.

But it has made this taxi driver an illegal resident in his own capital.

"If you're illegal you can't be here in Havana," said the driver, originally from Cuba's eastern Holguin province. "You don't have an address here in Havana."

The squeaky wheels of bicycle taxis usually make more noise than their drivers when the talk turns controversial in the company of an unfamiliar foreigner. But the 13-year old law has this bicycle taxi driver talking.

CNN is not naming the driver due to the sensitive nature of his residency status.

Video: Cubans illegal in Cuba
Video: Sights and sounds along Cuba's Malecon
  • Cuba
  • Cuban Politics

The law's passage through the island's rubber-stamp legislature came just six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the hardship that brought to Cuba during what it called the "special period."

Economic conditions were generally worse at the eastern end of the island, according to Cuba analyst Edward Gonzalez, a professor emeritus at the University of California Los Angeles.

"[The eastern region] has always been the less affluent, impoverished part of the island," he said, "heavily dependent upon agriculture, less on tourism, and also happens to be more black and mulatto."

The effort to keep migrants out and prevent overcrowding in Havana may have resulted in police discrimination against darker-skinned Cubans presumed more likely to be illegal, Gonzalez said.

"The government deported tens of thousands of people or forcibly removed them from Havana to other parts of the island," said Daniel Wilkinson, America's deputy director at Human Rights Watch. "It's just one in a series of laws that place severe restrictions on Cubans [and] how they live, where they live, and where they work."

The taxi driver said he believes when Havana police check IDs, they "like to pick on black people a little more."

The Cuban government, which has long touted racial integration as a crowning achievement of a revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959, declined to comment on internal migration or the activities of transit police. Cuba has repeatedly said its policies promote racial equality.

Article 42 of the country's constitution makes discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or place of origin, a violation of the law.

In practice, transit police check IDs in popular areas like Havana's Malecon and Central Park, flipping over the ID card to check the address.

"The police sometimes come, ask me why I'm sitting here if I don't live close by," said one man, perched on the Malecon's famed seawall that lines Havana's northern rim and practically juts out into the Caribbean.

"I just say the Malecon is a place to sit for every Cuban."