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Posted January 27, 2005 by mattlawrence in Cuba Human Rights

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Critics said a recently enacted treaty could be used by Fidel Castro’s government as a license to persecute Cuban exiles living in Venezuela.

Posted on Thu, Jan. 27, 2005
VENEZUELA

By PHIL GUNSON AND STEVEN DUDLEY

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CARACAS - Government officials are heatedly denying opposition complaints that a new treaty with Cuba allows Havana to harass and even force the repatriation of Cuban exiles and defectors living in Venezuela.

‘‘If there are those who are worried about political persecution in Venezuela, they shouldn’t be, because there will be none here,’’ said Saul Ortega, president of the legislature’s international commission and member of President Hugo Chvez’s political party.

The flap began after a Cuban-Venezuelan ‘‘mutual legal assistance’’ treaty, approved by the Venezuelan congress with little fanfare early last year, became law on Dec. 22.

Legal experts say the treaty is similar to those the U.S. military has signed in places such as Japan and South Korea, allowing American military personnel who commit crimes there to be handled within the U.S. justice system.

But Chvez foes, who complain about his close friendship with Fidel Castro and allege that he is leading Venezuela toward a Cuban-styled dictatorship, claim that the language of the law is vague enough to permit Cuban authorities to persecute Cuban citizens living in Venezuela.

Venezuela is home to a relatively sizable but unknown number of Cuban exiles who moved there after Castro’s 1959 revolution—and a much smaller but equally unknown number of defectors from the 20,000 Cuban doctors, nurses, teachers, sports coaches, and security and other technicians that the U.S. State Department estimates Havana has sent to Venezuela to help Chvez.

POINTS OF CONTENTION

Chvez foes cite clauses in the treaty stating that either country’s petitions for cooperation must be met, whether or not the charges against the citizens exist as crimes in both countries. Venezuela, for example, does not have laws making it a crime to criticize the Cuban president.

‘‘You can see clearly that the [Cubans] can persecute their enemies here,’’ said Enrique Naime, spokesperson for the the opposition coalition known as the Democratic Coordinator. ``They are going to say that any Cuban citizen who is here and who is a political dissident is a common criminal.’‘

Pro-Chvez legislators say such complaints are alarmist—Ortega blamed them on a ‘‘media conspiracy’’ emanating from Miami-based Venezuelans and Cubans—and point out that the Cuba-Venezuela treaty is similar to others worldwide.

‘‘There’s no clause . . . [that says] Cuban police and intelligence can operate in Venezuela,’’ pro-Chvez legislator Pedro Carreo told local media.

Since Chvez was elected in 1998, warm relations between Chvez and Castro have set off alarm bells in Washington, where the Cuba-Venezuela agreement on mutual legal assistance agreement is seen as the cause for concern.

PACT NOT UNUSUAL

Experts say that ‘‘mutual legal assistance treaties’’ are common among nations, designed mostly to help prosecutors pursue foreign aspects of domestic cases.

The United States has 48 such agreements with a variety of countries, while Venezuela has eight and Cuba has five, according to U.S. and Cuban websites and Venezuelan lawmakers.

But Jess Quintero, a leading Venezuelan criminal lawyer, said that while the Cuba-Venezuela treaty is superficially similar to other such treaties, there are some ‘‘subtle differences’’ that do give rise to concern.

Cuban penal law, he points out, ‘‘is intended as an instrument for the defense of the revolution against its enemies.’’ To sign such an agreement with Havana, he argued, ``is equivalent to collaborating with a totalitarian regime in the pursuit of its objectives.’‘

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