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MIGRATION-ECUADOR: Cubans Turn to Marriages of Convenience for Citizenship – Part 2

Gonzalo Ortiz*

QUITO, Jul 29 2010 (IPS) - Cuban nationals can be found every day at the busy corner of Amazonas and Naciones Unidas avenues in the Ecuadorean capital, where the National Civil Registry Office is located.

Hundreds of weddings between Cubans and Ecuadoreans have taken place in the building. In addition, people from Cuba have to visit the National Civil Registry Office to apply for or renew their national identity document or “cédula”, whether as residents or naturalised citizens.

Under Ecuadorean law, foreigners who marry natural-born citizens of this country or who can prove that they have had a stable cohabiting relationship for at least two years with an Ecuadorean citizen can become naturalised citizens.

This has given rise to a surge in marriages, many of them marriages of convenience, which end in divorce shortly after the Cuban member of the couple becomes a citizen.

“In the last few weeks, the number of marriages involving Cubans has dropped,” a National Civil Registry Office employee who requested anonymity told IPS. “I think they were scared by the reports of forged documents.”

He was referring to the annulment of 199 marriages, mainly involving Cuban men and Ecuadorean women, as well as the revocation of the national identity documents granted to 170 Cubans. The decision was made by the left-wing government of Rafael Correa after authorities discovered that the weddings and identity cards were based on forged documents.

Foreign Minister Raúl Patiño and the government’s Transparency Secretary, Juan Sebastián Roldán, announced the measure on Jun. 30, when they also requested the removal and prosecution of two notary publics in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city.

Marcos Díaz Casquete and Julio Olvera Espinoza are accused of certifying that certain couples had lived together for more than two years. But in some of the cases, the Cuban citizens involved had been in the country less than three months.

An investigation by El Comercio, a Quito newspaper, reported that in nearly all of the cases of forged documents, the papers had been issued in Guayaquil by two Chilean lawyers who live in Quito. They disappeared after Roldán first referred publicly to the case on Mar. 30.

The parties involved reportedly paid the Chilean couple a minimum of 2,600 dollars for work visas and 3,500 dollars for Ecuadorean nationality via recognition of civil unions.

Of that total, 1,500 dollars were paid up front, and the documents were available within a month.

The investigations by Mónica Rivera, the prosecutor handling the case, found that none of those involved had even been to Guayaquil or had met the women who testified that they lived with the men.

“We feel cheated,” one of the men involved, who was not identified, told El Comercio. “We thought things were done here like they are in Cuba, where you give your papers to a lawyer and he arranges everything legally.”

Ecuadorean citizenship enables Cubans to travel back and forth to their country of origin without having to meet complex requirements, like a letter of invitation.

According to government figures on the number of entries and departures by foreign nationals in Ecuador, some 7,800 Cubans are currently living legally or illegally in this country of 13.5 million people.

Hundreds of Cubans residing here legally are involved in trade, carrying clothing and accessories back to their home country. They are frequently seen in busy markets lugging enormous canvas suitcases full of garments.

“The Cubans are really good customers, although they’re not buying as much from us as they did before,” Raúl Tipantaxi, who sells printed T-shirts in the Centro Comercial Granada, a shopping complex in the historic centre of the Ecuadorean capital, told IPS. He said other vendors have the same impression of Cubans.

Sales of clothes from Ecuador to Cuba began to surge when restrictions for visits to Cuba were tightened on Cubans living in the United States.

But in Havana, people tend to prefer clothing items from the U.S., which they say is of better quality, and now that President Barack Obama has eased some of the travel restrictions, it is easier to obtain.

To apply for an exit permit in order to settle in Ecuador, Cubans need a cédula, a work card or student I.D. card, a marriage certificate issued at least 90 days earlier if the aim is to be reunited with a foreign spouse, and a letter of invitation.

Because of the pressure to obtain residency papers, there are now Cuban intermediaries in Quito. A Cuban dressed in a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase can usually be found outside the National Civil Registry Office.

One morning, IPS saw three women and a man contact him separately in the space of three hours. They gave him names, I.D. numbers and telephone numbers of contacts in Ecuador willing to be listed as employers or even to get married. Cubans who spoke to IPS commented that in these marriages of convenience, the Ecuadorean partner receives between 500 and 2,000 dollars, which comes on top of the lawyer’s charges.

The intermediary serves his clients right there, on the sidewalk. He works with at least four other Cubans, to whom he hands the information he gets from the Cubans who approach him. The National Civil Registry Office official who spoke to IPS, watching the same comings and goings, says he hopes everything is done legally.

The policy of not requiring visas from any foreign nationals is part of the concept of “universal citizenship” laid out by the constitution approved in 2008 in Ecuador.

But in a modification of the policy, since 2009, Colombian citizens have been required to provide a certificate issued in their country and registered with an Ecuadorean consulate showing that they have no criminal record.

The new policy was adopted in response to the huge influx of Colombians forced to flee that country’s decades-old armed conflict.

An estimated 300,000 Colombians are now living in Ecuador, 58,000 of whom have been granted official refugee status by the state. However, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) considers that 130,000 other refugee applications should be approved.

* Patricia Grogg in Havana contributed to this article.

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