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Posted August 12, 2003 by publisher in Castro's Cuba

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By TRACEY EATON | The Dallas Morning News

Relatives want Castro to see what’s going on today and show mercy

HAVANA– Journalist Hector Maseda defied the Cuban government and got a 20-year prison sentence for his troubles.

A half century earlier, young Fidel Castro led the July 26, 1953, rebel attack that killed 19 police and soldiers, and he spent less than two years in prison.

“I wish Fidel Castro would show some mercy,” said Mr. Maseda’s wife, Laura Polln. “I wish he would remember how he was treated 50 years ago.”

Mr. Castro remembers well, critics say. And that’s one reason he and his followers set up a completely different kind of judicial system – one giving the accused little chance of succeeding.

In today’s Cuba, opposition groups are illegal. Dissidents can be jailed for meeting with each other or staging peaceful protests. They have no access to state-run media. And they can be arrested for such offenses as “dangerousness,” defined as a “special proclivity” to commit crimes.

“The judicial system in Cuba isn’t just based on the Soviet system. It’s Castro’s invention,” said a U.S. official who requested anonymity. “And every advantage Castro had 50 years ago is nonexistent today.”

Laws are tough, Castro supporters say, because the socialist government faces intense and unceasing hostility from the United States.

The U.S. provokes Cuba continually, financing journalists and opposition groups and even using the American mission in Havana as a meeting place for “subversives,” said Luis Bez, co-author of a 2003 book called The Dissidents.

But he predicts they will fail.

“The Americans’ biggest mistake is to underestimate Fidel,” said Mr. Bez, author of 14 books. “They’ve done that since 1959. But Fidel has proved them wrong. He made this revolution a reality when no one thought it could be done, in the face of all storms, when people said it wouldn’t last 24 hours.”

Key to Mr. Castro’s success at the start of the revolution was to highlight the brutality of then-dictator Fulgencio Batista, whose secret police were blamed for the torture, murder and disappearance of hundreds of Cubans.

Mr. Castro was a 26-year-old lawyer when he and his followers attacked the Moncada army barracks in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953.

Eight rebels died in combat. Mr. Batista ordered his district military commander to murder 10 insurgents for every soldier killed in the failed assault. And over the next four days, they assassinated 61 men. Some were horribly tortured, their eyes gouged out or their testicles crushed.

“Enough blood!” then-Archbishop Enrique Perez Serantes urged in a statement. Public pressure mounted, and the killings stopped.

Soldiers captured Mr. Castro on Aug. 1, and he became known around the country for the first time, according to the book Fidel by the late biographer Tad Szulc.

Fellow rebels went on trial in September 1953. Mr. Castro represented them and quickly went from being the accused to the accuser. He said the Batista government had broken the law in killing and torturing dozens of rebels. And fellow insurgents testified about the horrors they had seen.

Later, Mr. Castro gave one of his most famous speeches, called “History Will Absolve Me,” which became sacred to the revolution.

He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but the damage had been done. Mr. Castro had become a hero. Bohemia, a Havana weekly, named him one of the most important figures of 1953 and published his story and photos, some showing his prison cell, complete with library.

His followers, including wives of other prisoners, launched a pro-amnesty campaign, and Mr. Castro was freed on May 15, 1955.

Fifty years later, the wives of jailed political prisoners are pressing for amnesty for their loved ones, arrested in a March crackdown that netted 75 dissidents, journalists and others.

But it’s been an uphill fight. Authorities threaten the women when they plan quiet processions near a Havana church. Political police spy on them. And many of the prisoners, meanwhile, are behind bars hundreds of miles from their homes.

“They didn’t even kill anyone,” Laura Polln said. “Their only weapons were their paper, pencils and typewriters.

“I wish Fidel would remember.”

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