By Vanessa Bauza and Rafael Lorente | STAFF WRITERS | Sun-Sentinel
HAVANA · In the high-stakes battle to influence U.S. policy on Cuba, moderates and hardliners alike say their positions have been validated by Fidel Castro’s crackdown on prominent dissidents and the lightning-fast trials and executions last week of three men who tried to hijack a ferry to South Florida.
Monday, as many world leaders condemned the crackdown, anti-Castro groups seized on the recent developments to pressure the Bush administration to toughen its stance against Castro’s government.
The Cuban Liberty Council has urged robust measures, including suspending all travel and remittances to Cuba, cash sent by Cuban Americans to their families on the island, two of the nation’s most important lifelines.
“The victims, martyrs and all their families do not need to see more crimes to validate the position that one cannot negotiate with the oppressors,” said Silvia Iriondo, of Mothers Against Repression, which supports sanctions against Cuba. “There can be no dialogue with a regime that is not only responsible for crimes in the past but continues to commit brutal crimes to this day.”
On Monday Iriondo and others launched a letter-writing campaign urging Latin American sponsors of a United Nations human rights resolution to condemn Cuba for severe sentences handed down to 75 dissidents convicted of working with U.S. diplomats to undermine Castro’s government. The resolution may go to a vote this week as the U.N. Human Rights Commission concludes its annual meeting in Geneva. Meanwhile, the European Union, meeting in Luxembourg, condemned the actions and warned that they would affect future relations with Cuba.
Although many support a strong stance against Castro, they stopped short of endorsing a U.S. military campaign in Cuba.
“We would not agree with military action against Cuba simply to seek the departure of Castro; that’s up to us Cubans,” said Luis Zuņiga, head of the Cuban Liberty Council. Zuņiga said the international community must take a more dynamic role “to tighten the noose” around the Castro regime and promote a transition toward democracy.
On the other side of the debate, liberal and moderate Cuban Americans, whose pro-dialogue position steadily has gained ground in recent years, say Havana’s actions confirm the need for improving diplomatic relations with the island, though they acknowledge their views have become less popular for the time being.
“The hardliners from Miami are on top right now and they’re making a lot of noise,” said Silvia Wilhelm, a Miami Cuban-American who advocates against economic sanctions. “But our position remains, that we are pro-dialogue, pro-opening, for changes in the embargo and the reconciliation of the Cuban family.”
`Slap in the face’
Philip Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute, who led a legislative delegation to Havana about a week before the crackdown, said the recent events had been a “slap in the face” for some members of Congress who sought to lift the embargo on trade and travel to Cuba.
“Some pursue getting rid of the travel ban simply because it’s the right thing to do. There are others who have tried to promote a very active dialogue and they feel the door has been closed,” Peters said. “The policies we advocated have never been predicated on the idea that Castro has a good human rights record or is a nice a guy. More than ever there needs to be contact between the U.S. and Cubans, unlimited contact.”
It is unclear how or if the White House will respond to the crackdown, but some say an answer may come on May 20, Cuban Independence Day. Last year President Bush gave a speech on that date outlining his Cuba policy and emphasizing support for dissidents.
Bush could take drastic steps, including closing one or both of the Cuban Interests Sections in Havana and Washington that serve as the only diplomatic contact between the estranged countries.
Bush also could end or restrict the dozens of weekly direct charter flights that offer service between the United States and Cuba. The administration could also end remittances to Cubans, which some estimate add up to as much as $1.2 billion a year, and even propose shutting down the commercial transactions that allow U.S. companies to sell agricultural products to the island.
Cuba denounces U.S.
Meanwhile, Cuba’s U.N. representative denounced the United States at a U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva Monday for using alleged acts of provocation to set the stage for potential aggression against the island nation.
The representative, Jorge Ferrer, said U.S. tolerance of hijackings of Cuban aircraft and the recent reduction in visas granted to emigrate to the United States “is not a mere coincidence, but rather part of a plan to destabilize” the government.
Ferrer’s remarks followed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s comments Sunday that Washington would not initiate a military campaign to bring about regime change in Cuba.
Also on Monday, the European Union condemned the crackdown, saying the recent actions will affect relations between the 15 EU members and the communist-ruled nation.
Europeans condemn “the recent actions of Cuban authorities, particularly the executions, large-scale arrest of dissidents, unfair trials and arbitrary and excessive sentences imposed,” the resolution said.
Havana’s crackdown on internal dissent is evidence of “the further deterioration of the human rights situation in Cuba” and “will affect relations between Cuba and the EU, as well as the prospects of increased cooperation between both sides.”
That was a reference to recent moves to include Havana in the system of trade preferences Western Europe grants former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific under the Cotonu accord.
The resolution passed by EU foreign Ministers meeting in Luxemburg called for “the immediate release of all political prisoners,” and warns that the European Union will pay close attention to how the situation unfolds.