By TRACEY EATON | The Dallas Morning News
2 hijackings, dissident trials, crumbling U.S. relations make for drama-filled week
HAVANA – Fidel Castro became a hijack negotiator. A French tourist helped Cuban soldiers take charge of a commandeered ferry. And dissidents on trial for alleged subversive acts learned that some of their colleagues were actually spies.
Thus ended a tumultuous week, one of high drama and danger, betrayal and intrigue.
The hijackings of a plane and a boat and dissident trials come at a time of escalating tensions between the United States and Cuba.
Trouble has been brewing for months, since the arrival of James Cason, America’s top diplomat in Havana. He has openly supported the dissident movement, and he’s said that Cuba has a “Jurassic Park” economy and that Mr. Castro is afraid of change.
For Castro loyalists, those are fighting words.
Relations weren’t good when President Bush took office. But there was strong support for normalizing relations in both the Senate and the House. Delegations of U.S. lawmakers streamed to Cuba, seeking better relations and open trade.
But suddenly, like a Caribbean storm, things changed
Mr. Castro, 76, and a string of witnesses went on national television Friday night to describe the March 31 hijacking of a Cuban passenger plane at the Havana airport.
They said accused hijacker Adermis Wilson threatened to blow up the plane with grenades. He searched frantically for a woman hostage, passengers say. He picked one, but she protested, saying, “No, no, no, I’m pregnant!” fellow passenger Nieves Quintana said on television.
Passenger Elena Reigosa quickly volunteered to be the hostage. The hijacker agreed. Big mistake, everyone agreed, because Ms. Reigosa wouldn’t be intimidated.
So when the hijacker threatened to stuff a grenade down her throat, she said, “I’m a volunteer and you’re not going to stick anything in my mouth!”
Taken aback, he told her, “Girl, shut up! Don’t talk anymore.”
But the damage had been done, passengers say. The hijacker never created the level of panic he wanted and the hours went by.
Mr. Castro tried to negotiate, but that didn’t help.
Cuban authorities gave in, fueled the plane and it left for Florida. It landed without incident, the grenades turned out to be fakes and Mr. Wilson was arrested.
Ten of the 27 on board requested political asylum. They included Mr. Wilson’s wife and son. During a five-hour TV appearance Friday and early Saturday, Mr. Castro criticized the United States for letting so many stay, saying such leniency will only encourage more hijackings.
Ms. Quintana said Mr. Wilson said he was desperate to leave Cuba, saying he said he’d go to China, Japan or Haiti. “I just want to get out of here,” she quoted him as saying.
In a second dramatic episode, hijackers armed with a gun and knives seized a ferry in Havana and demanded to be taken to the United States. It ran out of fuel 30 miles off the Cuban coast. Cuban authorities towed it to Mariel port, west of Havana.
But the standoff was hardly over. The hijackers were still on board on Thursday, threatening to kill the passengers if they weren’t given fuel.
Sonia Arbib, a French tourist, suddenly jumped overboard, distracting the only hijacker who had a gun.
“I thought the hijackers were going to start killing people,” she said later.
Cuban commandos and divers then captured the hijackers Thursday and whisked the 40 or so hostages to safety, ending the 38-hour episode.
Mr. Castro was at the scene again, giving orders and attempting to negotiate.
A third drama played out around the country wasn’t broadcast on state-run television. Summary trials against nearly 80 dissidents, writers and other activists began Thursday. They are accused of conspiring with the United States government to topple the socialist regime. At least 10 defendants face life sentences.
Blanca Reyes, wife of jailed journalist and poet Raul Rivero, said the two witnesses against her husband Friday were spies who had been posing as journalists.
She said her husband suspected they were state security agents and accepted the situation; all dissidents, independent journalists and pro-democracy activists know that the opposition is heavily infiltrated.
In court, the agents alleged that Mr. Rivero accepted money from U.S. diplomats in Cuba, a claim he and his wife deny.
His summary trial ended Friday after little more than six hours. Prosecutors want a 20-year jail sentence. A decision could come as early as Tuesday.
“It’s a circus, a big circus,” his wife said. “If not for the long sentences, this would be something to laugh about. Someday the world will realize this was unfair.”
Ms. Reyes said the trial seemed to be aimed not so much at her husband but at Mr. Cason, chief of the American mission in Havana.
Even some American senators who want normalized relations have lashed out at the jailing of Cuban dissidents.
Cuban officials have pressed on with their summary trials. Analysts say the government is cracking down while world attention has shifted to Iraq. But Castro loyalists say they’re only defending what’s theirs – the 1959 revolution, started by a defiant lawyer named Fidel Castro, his beard long turned gray.