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Posted April 08, 2003 by publisher in Castro's Cuba

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BY NANCY SAN MARTIN | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Miami Herald

Prosecutors accuse many of collaboratoring with American diplomats
In an attempt to suffocate a growing opposition movement, Fidel Castro’s government sentenced some of Cuba’s most prominent critics Monday to as much as 27 years in prison for allegedly collaborating with U.S. diplomats to undermine the socialist system.

At least 43 defendants were sentenced Monday in the culmination of a whirlwind process of arrest, trial, conviction and punishment that began less than three weeks ago with a series of lightning detentions.

Those arrested include more than two dozen independent journalists, leaders of independent labor unions and opposition political parties, as well as activists involved in a democratic reform effort known as the Varela Project.

Among those sentenced Monday were independent journalist Ral Rivero and economist Martha Beatriz Roque, both of whom drew 20-year terms in prison.

In Miami on Monday, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana said the crackdown on political dissidents was a symptom of instability that could provoke another massive exodus across the Florida Straits.

‘‘The continued disintegration of Cuban society generates instability throughout the region and creates the threat of a mass migration to the United States,’’ said James Cason, who heads the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba.

The punitive roundup ended a decade of relative tolerance by the Cuban government.

During that period, the opposition movement that began with a few dozen members has grown to thousands of supporters across the island. That came to an abrupt end last month when Cuban officials criticized Cason, accusing him of actively supporting the movement.

Cason, in town to deliver a speech at the University of Miami, denied Cuban government accusations that the United States gives money to dissidents. He said U.S. funds are used for programs, books, radios and other materials designed to support peaceful civic activity.

He defended the work carried out in Havana as standard diplomatic practice.

Cason also scoffed at Cuba’s contention that U.S. diplomats are acting in a ‘‘subversive’’ and ‘‘provocative’’ manner. He said threats by Castro to shut down the U.S. Interests Section are fueling a desire for Cubans to flee the island illegally.

‘‘I try to do the things in Cuba that [Cuban diplomats] are doing in the United States,’’ Cason said, adding that, while U.S. diplomats aren’t allowed to give speeches or meet with government officials in Cuba, Cuban counterparts in Washington are free to hold such meetings.

Cason also blamed Castro’s government for a growing atmosphere of desperation on the island. ‘‘They keep squeezing down on people . . . and creating tensions,’’ Cason said. “It’s not looking good.’‘

Monday’s sentences spurred reaction from Washington officials who denounced the ‘‘sham’’ proceedings.

‘‘The Castro government is persecuting journalists for acting like journalists; they’re persecuting economists for acting like economists, and peaceful activists for seeking a solution to Cuba’s growing political and economic crisis,’’ said Philip Reeker, State Department spokesman. “The regime’s actions, we believe, are an appalling act of intimidation. . . . And the international community is united in its condemnation of this most egregious act of political repression in decades, where once again, Cuba is isolating itself certainly from the rest of this hemisphere.’‘

The arrests have been condemned by the European Union, various nations, human-rights groups and press organizations. The United Nations Human Rights Commission also is expected to include the issue in a resolution that is expected to be voted on later this month.

Among those originally recommended for life imprisonment was opposition political party leader Hector Palacios. He received 25 years, instead, said his wife, Gisela Delgado.

`AN INJUSTICE’

‘‘This is an injustice,’’ Delgado said after leaving the courthouse. “We are as Cuban as members of the Communist Party.’‘

In many trials, undercover government agents—some appearing in military uniforms—who infiltrated opposition ranks revealed their true identities to testify against dissidents.

Cason said journalists were being punished for having such books as Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson, and others written by Groucho Marx and Stephen King.

Another handed a 20-year sentence was Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who wrote critical articles about the Cuban economy for Internet sites run by exile groups in Miami.

A list of sentences confirmed thus far by the nongovernmental Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation in Havana showed the most severe punishment thus far was 27 years for independent journalist Omar Rodrguez Saludes. A familiar figure in the dissident community, Rodrguez Saludes often rode his bicycle to news conferences, a camera dangling by a strap from his neck.

The remaining trials were expected to end soon, with all sentences being announced before the end of this week.

Cason said the government might try to cripple the opposition movement further by offering defendants exile in lieu of serving out their sentences in Cuban prisons.

Among those being tried in Havana on Monday was Dr. Oscar Elas Biscet, a dissident physician jailed since December after his arrest during a protest in nearby Matanzas province. Prosecutors are seeking a 25-year sentence.

EARLIER SENTENCE

He already served three years for displaying national flags upside down in an act of civil disobedience.

Cason acknowledged that the anti-dissident drive ‘‘is clearly a setback’’ but said others ‘‘will carry the torch’’ and continue to push for change.

‘‘I can pledge that the United States stands ready to assist the Cuban people when asked and will continue to do so in the future,’’ he added.

This report was supplemented with material from The Associated Press.

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