Published on Sunday, April 20, 2003 by the Observer/UK
Castro Dissidents Jailed in Reprisals
Cuba risks world condemnation as it cracks down on dissenters
by Ed Vulliamy in New York
Cuba turned a defiant face to America and the United Nations yesterday as both prepared to take action against Fidel Castro for his most forceful and unrelenting crackdown on dissidents in years.
Cuba responded to growing concerns over its sudden, brutal swoop on opposition groups with a curt statement that it would not allow UN envoys to investigate human rights abuses and is studying how to withdraw from a European aid pact.
Some of the most notable voices of dissent in Cuba are among those who have been sentenced to jail for up to 30 years, in trials that saw their closest aides testify against them, having worked as infiltrators.
The clampdown, which began hours before the first US bombs struck Baghdad - leading to fears that Castro was grasping the opportunity to act while world attention was focused on Iraq - involved the summary rounding up and hasty one-day trials of more than 80 economists, librarians and journalists, and the execution last week of three men found guilty of hijacking a ferry in a botched attempt to reach Florida.
Chepe was a fierce opponent of the US embargo against Cuba, and a supporter of the return from the US of the child Elián González to his father on the island during the fracas of three years ago. 'I just try to be objective,' he told a Florida newspaper last year. 'My message is not black and white.'
The only woman arrested is Marta Beatriz Roque, a former economist, condemned to 20 years, having already served three for writing a pamphlet called 'The Homeland Belongs to Us All', urging a boycott of elections.
One of the heavier sentences - 25 years - was imposed on Hector Palacios, an organizer of the Proyecto Varela, a petition calling the government's bluff on its own terms by demanding a referendum on amnesty and reforms under the Cuban constitution. The petition was delivered last spring and was due a response - which never came - in the autumn. Instead, Palacios was arrested for the third time at his small independent library.
'The list reads like a Who's Who of Cuban civil society,' wrote Aryeh Neier, the president of George Soros's Open Society Institute. 'They are the unsung heroes of a movement to liberate the minds of Cuba.'
Notable by his absence from those arrested was the man who has over the past year become the most prominent and popular dissident - apparently one man Castro dare not touch - Osvaldo Paya, organizer of the Proyecto Varela.
Paya gave his first ever international interview to The Observer last March, and remains free. He said, through an intermediary: 'This is the act of a desperate government. For the first time, the people are beginning to raise their voices in opposition. The government knows this. As the people grow braver, the government is growing more afraid.'
Paya is closely watched. An electrician, he was himself a teenage prisoner at a rock-breaking camp for possessing religious literature. He has had his home - in the poor Havana suburb of Cerrero - ransacked, the Catholic images adorning its walls spray-painted and defiled.
Castro's sudden round-up has left diplomats and analysts astonished that he would be ready to forego a moment of increased dialogue with Europe and the rest of Latin America, as well as one of opportunity for a barren economy, in favor of perceived security.
Cubans accuse the US Interests Section [a surrogate embassy] in Havana, and specifically its present occupant, James Chason, of stoking anti-government activity and destabilizing the country. 'He is the person principally responsible for what has happened,' said Cuba's foreign minister, Felipe Pérez Roque.
Chason, denounced by Castro as 'a bully with diplomatic immunity', has turned up the heat by allowing dissidents to use the mission's offices, internet access and even hosted a seminar on political ethics at his home.
'These arrests are a message to the US that Cuba will not permit the US to actively and publicly build the opposition in Cuba,' said Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America.
The UN is now to debate a motion demanding the release of the dissidents, while the Bush administration is considering tightening the noose around the island with punitive new measures to stop the already limited flow of money to Cuba.
The White House is considering harsher measures, despite the fact that it is itself subject to increasing pressure over its own human rights record over the Afghan prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay - a US-controlled corner of Cuba.
The Bush administration is clearly relieved to have the spotlight of accusation shifted. Secretary of State Colin Powell lashed out at Cuba last week, saying Castro's clampdown 'should be an outrage to every leader in this hemisphere, every leader in the world. Cuba has always had a horrible human rights record, and it's getting worse.'
Bush is expected to make an announcement this week that is likely to restrict the number of Americans - mainly Cuban exiles - eligible for travel to Cuba on charter flights from Miami and New York.
He may also impose further limitations on monetary dispatches that Cubans send to their families at home. These funds, worth an estimated $1.2 billion (£765 million) a year, are a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of Cubans.
Bush is also expected to warn Castro that the US will not play host to a wave of raft people and boat refugees of a kind that has accompanied previous periods of repression.
It was to try to make such a dash for Florida that explains why three men - Lorenzo Castillo, Barbaro García and Jorge Martínez - hijacked a ferry on 2 April.
They were executed by firing squad for their crime nine days ago, having been charged with 'very grave acts of terrorism' and their sentence upheld on appeal by Cuba's Supreme Council.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003