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Posted February 16, 2004 by publisher in Castro's Cuba

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BY GARY MARX | Chicago Tribune

HAVANA, Cuba - (KRT) - In Miriam Leiva’s cramped Havana apartment, there is little to indicate that her husband, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, played a role in the pivotal event of 2003 in Cuba.

A small Christmas tree stands on a round dining table. Family photographs line several walls. Only one photograph, the most recent, seems out of place.

It captures Espinosa Chepe being hauled away in a police car after being sentenced to 20 years in prison.

“I’m very proud of him,” Leiva said. “He stood up for his ideals and convictions. His only crime was speaking out and wishing the best for his country.”

The imprisonment last spring of Espinosa Chepe and 74 other pro-democracy activists set off a political tidal wave that largely crushed the island’s small dissident movement and sent relations between Cuban President Fidel Castro and the U.S. and Europe to their lowest point in years.

Only 16 months ago, I watched as Castro snuggled up to a baby American bison and sipped an Archer Daniels Midland Co.-made milkshake at the first U.S. agricultural trade fair in Havana. The Cuban leader was mobbed by U.S. businesspeople, who signed millions of dollars in contracts while boldly predicting that a 4-decade-old U.S. trade embargo would soon be lifted.

Back then, each week would bring another delegation of U.S. legislators, celebrities and academics to join thousands of American tourists whose curiosity seemed insatiable as they toured Havana’s historic district and lounged on the veranda of the famed Hotel Nacional.

Yet, by early spring, the mood had shifted sharply. The Bush administration and Cuban officials were ratcheting up the rhetoric against each other. In one incident, James Cason, the top U.S. diplomat here, met with dissidents and later told reporters that the Cuban government was “scared of freedom.”

By April, Castro had not only incarcerated the 75 dissidents but also ordered the execution of three men who hijacked a ferry in a failed attempt to reach the United States. The executions sent a shock wave through Cuba and, coupled with the dissident arrests, sparked condemnation by international human-rights groups.

Castro accused the dissidents of being “mercenaries” of an imperialist U.S. government out to foment counterrevolution. But many diplomats called the evidence weak and wondered why Castro would risk the condemnation of the world to imprison individuals who have little public profile here and represent no salient threat to his one-party rule.

Political machinations aside, it is often impossible to know how and why decisions are made in this Caribbean nation of 11 million people where the government is often the sole source of information and there is rarely any public accounting.

The state-run media is no help. It runs either relentlessly upbeat stories about life in Cuba or ones about how rotten things are in the United States and the rest of the capitalist world.

In place of fact, Cubans trade on rumor. Imagine the buzz in December when Cubans awoke and saw a front-page photograph of Castro in Granma, the official Communist Party daily, which bore a striking resemblance to Adolf Hitler. Many Cubans grabbed magnifying glasses to get a closer look.

Was the photograph, taken at a distance, an optical illusion, a printing error or an audacious protest? Absent an official explanation, Cubans were left to ponder what, if anything, it meant about Castro, Cuba and the future.

Some Cubans continue to express support for the revolution.

“Thanks to the government, a poor person like me can study ballet and become an artist,” Ernesto Diaz, 22, a member of Cuba’s world-renowned National Ballet, told me in December.

But five of Diaz’s fellow ballet dancers defected last fall during a tour of the United States.

Many Cubans who remain on the island increasingly voice discontent, though it’s worth noting that 2003 passed without a single public demonstration against Castro or his government.

“What can we do?” pleaded one disgruntled Havana resident.

How long can the one-party system survive? The short answer is that there is little chance for political reform as long as Castro is alive.

Castro says his government is the most just and democratic in the world. Castro’s place in history - at least as he envisions it - is anchored in the survival of socialism and what the Cuban president articulates as its inevitable triumph over capitalism.

Yet, despite the lack of political reform, Cuba is continuing its limited economic opening by buying U.S. agricultural products, allowing some private enterprise and developing partnerships with European and other foreign companies in tourism, mining and other areas to attract investment.

All this is taking place as relations with Europe are at their lowest point in years. In July, Castro rejected millions of dollars in assistance from the European Union after the EU downgraded relations with Cuba to protest the political crackdown and summary execution of the hijackers.

“We have not needed that aid, those miserable sums, to do everything we have done,” Castro said in December.

Castro remains equally defiant toward the Bush administration, which has sharply curtailed the number of Americans allowed to legally visit the island. President Bush also has vowed to strengthen enforcement of the U.S. trade embargo even though it has virtually no international support and there is little evidence that it is weakening Castro’s resolve.

On the contrary, Cuban officials use the embargo to explain nearly every shortcoming.

In a further snub to Castro, Bush formed a presidential commission in October to study Cuba’s transition to democracy. Castro responded by saying the nation has “millions of combatants and millions of weapons” to defend itself.

“United we struggle . . . United we triumph,” proclaimed billboards marking the 45th anniversary of the revolution that have sprouted up throughout Havana.

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