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Havana Rolls Out Un-Welcome Mat for Its Country Cousins

On Cuban television, the evening news likes to focus on what it calls "abysmal" and "shocking" treatment by the United States of Latin Americans trying to illegally cross the border into the US to make a living.

What the evening news doesn't mention is that Cuba has its own illegal migration problem. Instead of fending off foreigners, Cuban officials are battling an invasion of provincial Cubans who are seeking the relatively better economic conditions of the capital. In April, the government approved a law prohibiting such migration, and promised swift eviction from the city - with a hefty fine to boot - of any unauthorized migrants.

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From the overcrowded, crumbling apartment buildings of Old Havana, to the small towns of rural Cuba, the illegal migrants to Havana are known as Palestinos - the Palestinians.

The government says the measure should be seen more as a no-growth policy than an infringement on Cubans' rights. Havana, with more than 2 million residents, is unable to handle the strain of thousands of "provincials" pouring in from the countryside, officials claim.

Havanans generally agree that their city is already at its limits. Scenes of residents carrying buckets or rolling barrels of water to their homes are not uncommon, while blackouts, though less common than at the worst of Cuba's economic crisis a few years ago, still strike. Still, many Cubans suspect the real impetus for the law lies elsewhere.

"This law against the Palestinos, it's really aimed at keeping down the prostitution problem," says a Havana ice-cream seller. "There are too many girls from the east [end of Cuba] who think they can make easy dollars moving here and hooking up with the tourists."

"A lot of the petty thieves and beggars we now see in our streets are not people from Havana, they're the scum who are unwilling to work in the countryside," adds a woman selling oranges in a Havana market. "They should go back to the fields they came from."

A government official, when queried about the issue, responded in terms of labor shortages in the agricultural sector. "If some action wasn't taken, we'd find ourselves with an empty countryside, and no one to work in the fields," says the official, who asked not to be identified. Already Cuba, which should be a food exporter, has to import more than $700 million in products annually.

Such arguments don't impress the Palestinos struggling to get by in Havana without being detected. "If they want field workers, let the people who passed this law go and bend over in the hot sun all day," says Mercedes, a young woman from the eastern city of Holguin now sharing a shabby apartment with two friends.

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Mercedes and her friends are all prostitutes, and all hail from the east. "They can deport me all they want, but I'll come back," says Mercedes, who seems more preoccupied with her chipped nail polish than worried about the consequences of her illegal status. "Life in provincia isn't my style."

The antimigrant law is enforced by police making ever-more-frequent checks on cars and average citizens walking down the street. They are assisted by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, or CDRs - the busybody clubs established to rat on their neighbors.

One woman in Old Havana, who declined to give her name, had a run-in with her local CDR over the law.

"My apartment is legally registered for four residents, but then a cousin ... got married and moved out," she says. "Well, I honestly forgot I was supposed to go have the registration changed," she adds, "but apparently someone from the CDR reported me. They think I was trying to use that fourth slot to rent a room to someone from provincia. Now I have this 500-peso [$23] fine. Where am I supposed to get that kind of money?"

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