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Repression in Cuba
The Economist, Havana, Apr. 10, 2003
"A few of them, such as Raúl Rivero, a poet and writer, and Martha Beatriz Roque, an economist, are well-known in human-rights circles abroad. But what is striking about the vast majority of the dissidents hauled before Cuba's summary courts over the past ten days is their seeming ordinariness. Of the 78 assorted democrats, independent journalists and human-rights campaigners rounded up by the security police last month, 49 live in the obscurity of the provinces."
"That, of course, may be precisely why Fidel Castro's Communist government sees them as threatening. In just three weeks, Mr. Castro has all but snuffed out the weak flame of opposition on the island. The detainees were hauled before courts surrounded by police and packed with government supporters, and from which foreign diplomats and journalists were barred. Accused of conspiring with American diplomats against Mr. Castro's government and revolution, they were swiftly dispatched for jail terms averaging around 20 years. Since many of the dissidents are aged between 50 and 60, in practical terms they are being put away for life."
"This sudden crackdown is a harsh reminder to Cubans that as long as Mr. Castro is alive, any dreams of regime change will remain just that. But it also marks a new period in his 43-year rule. Ever since European communism's demise left his country isolated and in shambles, he has allowed token dissent as he searched for improved political and economic ties with the capitalist world. So what has prompted such heavy repression?"
"On the face of things, Cuba's small, isolated and harassed opposition movement is no match for a government that controls all the levers of power and enjoys a media monopoly. But Mr. Castro clearly takes it seriously. At the trials, the government produced as witnesses eight security agents who had infiltrated opposition groups. That will sow suspicion among dissidents who remain free."
"The best-known of these is Oswaldo Payá, who last year won the European Union's Sakharov human-rights prize. He heads the Varela Project, a petition drive seeking a referendum on democratic reform. At least 46 supporters of his Christian Liberation movement were among those arrested. As he stood outside Havana's main court this week, Mr. Payá said that Mr. Castro's aim was to shatter an opposition movement that had gained strength, unity and legitimacy. He promised to continue with his petition drive. With many of his grassroots organisers taken out, that may be hard."
"According to senior Cuban officials, the crackdown was prompted not by the growth of domestic opposition but by the stance of President George Bush's administration. They say that Cuba's toleration of token dissent was a response to the Clinton administration: it was perceived to be unfriendly to Mr. Castro's exiled foes in Miami, and saw dissidents as a means to rapprochement and peaceful change. By contrast, they argue, Mr. Bush's government represents the most dangerous threat they have faced since the 1959 revolution. They say that over 30 Cuban-Americans, many of them Mr. Castro's bitter foes who favour military action to overthrow him, now have government jobs in Washington."
"In Havana, the United States is seen as fomenting internal opposition to create the conditions for intervention. A week before the crackdown, Mr. Castro denounced James Cason, America's top diplomat in Cuba, as a 'provocateur.' Mr. Cason had met dissidents across the country, publicly backing them while attacking the regime, and allowed them to use the United States' Interests Section and his own residence for their meetings."
"According to Mr. Cason, the Bush administration will now consider further hardening its policy towards Cuba. The United States' Congress is unlikely to relax any further America's trade embargo against Cuba. Protests have come, too, from many of Cuba's main trading partners. Canada has protested at the severity of the sentences. Sweden said that Cuba has jeopardised its chances of joining the European Union's Cotonou trade pact. But such protests are unlikely to be heeded. Cuba-watchers say that, in weighing important decisions, Mr. Castro's first consideration is his political control of the country, and his second concern is his traditional foes in Washington and Miami. The reactions of his friends and economic partners in other parts of the world come a distant third."