By Anthony Boadle | Reuters
HAVANA (Reuters) - Opponents of President Fidel Castro (news - web sites) said on Wednesday that mass arrests and infiltration by government spies knocked them to their knees, but they expect to rise again on growing discontent with Cuba’s crumbling communist state.
Dissidents who survived the worst wave of repression in Cuba in decades said their fragile organizations were decapitated by the round-up of 75 leading dissidents, activists and independent journalists a month ago.
“The dissident movement is practically paralyzed,” said Vladimiro Roca, who was freed last year after four years in jail for criticizing Castro’s economic policies.
“It was a really big blow, but there are enough dissidents out of jail. We are regrouping,” the son of a founding father of Cuba’s ruling Communist Party told Reuters.
Roca said it would take months before disabled dissident groups could raise their heads again.
Western diplomats in Havana wonder whether Cuba’s small and divided opposition groups will be able to regain momentum after so many were given severe prison terms of up to 28 years.
The crackdown dealt a devastating blow to a nascent opposition movement that had raised its voice last year calling for democratic reforms to the one-party state while enjoying a rare period of official tolerance.
Particularly shocking was the number of undercover security agents who surfaced at the trials as witnesses to reveal that they had been posing as dissidents, in some case for decades.
“The damage to the dissidents is enormous. I don’t know how they will recover now,” said a European ambassador.
“Who can they trust now, after it turns out that even leading figures were agents for 10 years?” the diplomat added.
CASTRO LOSES FRIENDS
The jailings, followed by the firing squad executions this month of three men who hijacked a Havana commuter ferry in a bid to reach the United States, brought an outpouring of international criticism, and lost Castro some close friends.
Communist parties in Italy, France and Portugal criticized the repression and Portuguese Nobel prize winning writer Jose Saramago declared that his friendship with Castro had ended because the right to dissent had been suppressed in Cuba.
The Cuban government said the executions were necessary to stop illegal migration to Florida encouraged by Washington.
Havana maintained the jailed dissidents had committed treason by conspiring with diplomats of its longtime foe the United States, where the Bush administration has stepped up support for Castro’s opponents who have received U.S.-funded computers, digital cameras and short-wave radios.
Diplomats and dissidents said the crackdown was prompted by discontent over economic hardship and the first nationwide opposition movement, the Varela Project signature drive.
“The arrests and trials were meant to stop the dissidents capitalizing on the growing discontent,” a European diplomat said. “There are many reasons Cubans are unhappy: transport, food, lack of horizons. The government’s alarm bells went off.”
Cuba’s economy has never recovered fully from the collapse of Soviet communism. Foreign investment has dropped to a trickle due to bureaucracy, and tourism, the Caribbean island’s main source of foreign currency, slumped last year.
FEW PROSPECTS OF CHANGE
Puffing on a cigar before his computer sent from the United States, veteran rights activist Elizardo Sanchez said the dissident movement was born locally, not in the United States.
“They cut the grass, but the grass will grow again because the economic crisis continues to feed popular discontent,” he said. “I’ve never felt so much solidarity in the streets.”
More than half of the jailed dissidents were local organizers of the Varela Project, whose leader Oswaldo Paya won the European Union (news - web sites)‘s Sakharov human rights prize last year.
“This wave of terror is an attempt to kill the chances of peaceful change in Cuba, but we will continue seeking peaceful reforms,” Paya said.
Diplomatic observers with years in Havana said Castro could not tolerate criticism of his socialist society born of a 1959 guerrilla revolution and was determined to see it outlast him.
But they said the 76-year-old leader was making it hard for his political successors to stay in control.
“These repressive steps are gradually undermining his government’s legitimacy, making any succession difficult,” a South American diplomat said.
“Each day there is more despair among Cubans because of the lack of future perspectives,” he said.