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Posted March 27, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Human Rights

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AYEAR AGO Cuba’s Communist government cracked down on nonviolent dissidents, independent journalists, human rights activists, librarians and teachers. Within weeks, 75 of them were in prison, sentenced to terms ranging from 6 to 28 years after one-day closed trials. Carried out while the world’s attention was focused on the war in Iraq, this was President Fidel Castro’s attempt to destroy a pro-democracy civil society that had been peacefully emerging. A year later, the bad news is that those 75 political prisoners are still locked away, in many cases under inhumane conditions. The worse news is that Mr. Castro has gotten away with his crime: He has set back the cause of freedom in Cuba, and suffered few consequences.

True, the Bush administration reacted to the arrests last year by tightening some sanctions on Cuba—cheap toughness from an administration eager to please the Cuban exile community in Florida. But Congress sent the opposite message, voting to end enforcement of a travel ban. The European Union adopted some token sanctions. But European trade and tourists continue to provide the hard currency that props up Mr. Castro’s regime. More help has come from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, a Castro wannabe who supplies his mentor with oil on sweetheart terms. Irresponsible populists elsewhere in Latin America, such as Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner, have courted the dictator; when the Argentine foreign minister visited Havana, he declined to meet with spouses of the imprisoned democrats.

Those spouses have carried on their own brave campaign to report on the cruel conditions in the prisons, despite harassment and threats from the regime. According to a letter released last week by seven international human rights groups, “many of the imprisoned, such as economists Oscar Espinosa Chepe and Marta Beatriz Roque, are not receiving adequate medical care for conditions that, in some cases, have developed during incarceration and are life-threatening. Others, like Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, have been held in solitary confinement for months, denied family visits and access to sunlight.”

One of Cuba’s foremost dissidents, Oswaldo Paya, who was not arrested, released his own letter last week and said he and his followers are still pursuing the Varela Project, a petition demanding a referendum on democracy and human rights that has attracted more than 25,000 signatures. “They suffer, and their families and friends suffer with them,” Mr. Paya said of the prisoners. “But they have not given up, and we will not give up. . . . From the darkness of their cells, they are proclaiming the Cuban Spring, which is the hope of all people.” The failure of the international community to hold Mr. Castro accountable for his crimes against some of Cuba’s best writers, journalists and teachers means that that spring probably will not arrive this year. But even Mr. Castro, feebly clinging to his failed ideology at age 77, must know in his heart that it is coming.

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