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Posted April 27, 2003 by publisher in Castro's Cuba

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By Patrick Rucker in Havana | Financial Times
When Oscar Espinoza Chepe was called to answer charges of defying the Cuban government this month, he could offer no defence.

Everything the 62-year-old independent economist had written about the Cuban economy violated Law 88, the decree gagging any criticism of his country’s socialist system. A decade of research amounted to a treasonous confession. Mr Chepe was convicted in a single court sitting and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Conditions in Havana’s state security headquarters aggravated his liver condition and he was moved to a hospital a few days ago. Mariam Leiva, his wife, said: “But he is receiving no treatment. The doctors said that there was little point, since he would be transferred to a new prison over the weekend. I was told that I could visit him on Monday in a prison in Guantnamo [600 miles east of Havana].”

Mr Chepe was convicted amid a crackdown that has wiped out the island’s nascent civil society. Seventy-five activists are in jail, having run uncensored libraries, a news service, an association of independent economists and a reform campaign that sought basic freedoms on the island, dominated for 40 years by Fidel Castro’s one-party rule.

International condemnation of the arrests has been swift and nearly unanimous. Officials said the sweep was necessary to thwart a US-hatched plot to topple the government.

As evidence, Cuban officials cite millions of dollars in allocations for Radio Marti, a service of Voice of America run from Florida, and personal relationships between Cuban dissidents and James Cason, head of the US interest section in Havana.

According to Felipe Perez Roque, Cuba’s foreign minister, the arrests are in the interests of self-determination and whether a “a small country close to a superpower can be independent and follow its own way”.

Mr Cason admitted that his office has given modest support to the opposition. He also said that such help amounts to nothing more than “appropriate and routine contacts with legitimate political actors”.

Still, some observers trace the crackdown to Mr Cason’s arrival in Havana eight months ago and his obliging disposition towards the island’s dissidents.

Cuban officials became anxious as Mr Cason travelled to meet dissidents in their homes and invited them to his official residence. Mr Castro was piqued when Mr Cason - speaking outside the home of Marta Beatriz Roque, a now-imprisoned dissident - said Cuba was growing fearful of internal opposition.

Two weeks later a defiant Mr Castro told the National Assembly that Cuba could “very easily do without the US interests section office”. The offensive soon followed.

William Leogrande, Dean of the School of Public Affairs at Washington DC’s American University, called Mr Cason’s “very public stand” the “catalyst” for the crackdown.

“The dissidents were not well-served by Cason’s very public embrace,” he said. “It was as if he were throwing the gauntlet down to the Cuban regime.”

Ties between the US interest section and the dissidents were used as trial evidence, as was the testimony of several Cuban security agents who infiltrated the movement. State-run media then published this testimony to discredit the dissidents as mercenaries bankrolled by the US.

While Mr Cason has expressed no regret for his activities, he has curtailed his public engagements while he and other officials reassess how best to support dissidents without jeopardising them.

Mr Leogrande noted that remaining dissidents have developed “some effective models of resistance. The Castro regime has no hope of restoring the ideology of the 1970s and 1980s so, just as in eastern Europe, time is on the dissidents’ side.”

But for now the arrests have thrown the dissident movement into a tailspin. Even when the Castro government was relatively permissive of dissident organising, few Cubans knew about their efforts or got involved. Recruitment is certain to be more difficult now that the movement has been criminalised, deeply infiltrated by state agents, and proved so easily dismantled.

Vladimiro Roca, a leading Havana dissident and former political prisoner who has so far been spared in the crackdown, said: “Yes, some people may be afraid to join us and we have to rebuild. But what the government has done only reminds us that the future belongs to the dissidents, and that gives us strength.

“The government says that we are insignificant groups, that we are ‘minuscule’,” Mr Roca said. “But what sort of hunter shoots a sparrow with a cannon?”

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  2. Follow up post #2 added on August 27, 2004 by rene ayoub

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