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HavanaJournal.com: Cuba Politics

Cuba Finds Crackdown on Dissent Has a Price

Posted July 20, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Politics.
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By Carol J. Williams | LA Times Staff Writer

HAVANA — Almost any way you look at it — in terms of trade, academic exchanges or international standing — Cuba’s spring offensive against domestic political opponents has cost the nation dearly.

Any way you look at it, that is, if you’re not Fidel Castro. 
The crackdown that sent 75 pro-democracy activists to prison and led to the execution of three young hijackers has brought to a screeching halt efforts in the U.S. Congress to ease the economic embargo imposed on Cuba soon after Castro took power 44 years ago.

Although bad relations between Washington and Havana are as old as Castro’s revolution, the harsh measures meted out in March and April also angered the European Union, Pope John Paul II, traditional allies in Latin America and leftist intellectuals.

The Cuban government’s attitude is: So be it.

“The independence of Cuba is priceless. Perhaps it will have a cost, but principles are more valuable,” said Rafael Dausa, the Foreign Ministry official in charge of North American relations. “Perhaps tactically we lost, but strategically we won because we are saving the revolution.”

That line of thinking, set out by Castro in recent speeches and echoed by those in his government, “handed the Bush administration what it wanted on a silver platter,” said Brian Alexander, executive director of the Cuba Policy Foundation in Washington.

Before the crackdown, the foundation had amassed considerable momentum to ease trade and travel restrictions against Cuba. But it folded its political tent April 23, announcing the resignation of its entire board of directors and declaring its revulsion at Cuba’s human rights abuses.

“Our Achilles’ heel was that all our efforts were dependent on Cuba cooperating,” Alexander said.

Not only did the crackdown on dissent validate the view that Cuba is a repressive regime that should be isolated and punished, he said, but it undermined the argument that, politics aside, Cuba could be a good place to do business.

“It’s not. The risks are obvious if a regime is so retrograde that it’s willing to undermine its own economy,” the exasperated lobbyist said.

At the U.S. Interests Section here, a heavily guarded eight-story edifice that is an embassy in all but name, mission chief James Cason said he stands by his opposition to any easing of the embargo because he has “not been convinced otherwise that it would do anything for human rights or economic freedom.”

The Bush administration’s new point man in the diplomatic clash with Castro, Cason arrived in Havana a year ago and embarked immediately on efforts to bolster the weak and fractured opposition to Castro.

The envoy met with fledgling dissident groups in the provinces. He mustered U.S. aid to independent libraries and publications. His home and Interests Section offices were made available for workshops and meetings aimed at strengthening groups opposed to Castro.

It was that assertive attitude that outraged Castro, who in turn outraged friends and foes alike with his roundup of almost every dissident who had connections to Cason.

But unlike previous acts of repression by Castro that were aimed as much at Cuban exiles in the United States as at opponents in this country, this crackdown has reverberated around the globe.

The 15-nation European Union, Cuba’s largest trade partner and foreign investor, imposed sanctions in June to protest human rights abuses. The Europeans decided unanimously to limit high-level government contacts and participation in cultural events in Cuba.

It earlier froze Cuba’s request to join the 2000 Cotonou Agreement between the European Union and African, Caribbean and Pacific nations. Membership would have made Cuba eligible for much-needed trade financing and aid. Castro reacted to the censure by staging noisy rallies outside European embassies and seizing the Spanish cultural center a move that angered the country from which the biggest pool of foreign investment has come to Cuba.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog group, has embarked on a summer campaign to dissuade Europeans from vacationing in Cuba to protest the jailing of independent journalists. At least half of the 1.8 million tourists who came to Cuba in each of the last two years were from Europe.

Leftist intellectuals of world renown such as Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes and Nobel literature laureate Jose Saramago of Portugal have broken with Castro over what they see as a betrayal of shared values.

Several high-profile Cuban entertainers have defected to the United States since the crackdown, including pop star Carlos Manuel Pruneda, citing their desire to work in a more open society.

Pope John Paul II censured Cuba’s decision to impose the death penalty on the three young men who attempted to hijack a passenger ferry to Florida in April. The Vatican’s ignored appeal for clemency upset Cuba’s Roman Catholics, who had been enjoying more religious freedom since the pope’s 1998 visit.

Castro’s challenge to U.S. domination and authority still attracts support in Latin America, and a few prominent figures including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez continue to back him. Others, such as Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, another Nobel laureate, have remained silent.

In the United States, measures aimed at isolating Cuba were already so thorough that there was little more Washington could do to punish Castro without inflicting disproportionate harm on ordinary Cubans.

A week after the dissident arrests, the U.S. Treasury Department approved new restrictions on educational and cultural exchanges with Cuba that are expected to cut deeply into people-to-people contacts. But those programs account for only about 10% of the U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba; the majority of last year’s 178,000 such travelers are exiles and emigres returning here for family visits. Those trips and the dollar remittances sent here remain legal.

The Treasury Department, which is responsible for enforcing the embargo against Cuba, last month turned down a license request from PWN Exhibitions International for a second food and agricultural trade fair in Cuba. The Connecticut firm staged the inaugural event in September to the cheers of both Cuban consumers and U.S. Farm Belt marketers who have sold more than $200 million in food to Cuba since then. Arkansas and California are the two states that benefited most from the commodity sales.

Dausa, the Foreign Ministry official, insisted in a nearly two-hour interview that Cuba’s crackdown was provoked by the Bush administration and Cason’s “violation of every standard of diplomatic behavior.” He accused the U.S. envoy of drafting the dissidents into the paid service of a hostile foreign government.

The Cuban official described the European protests against the jailing and executions as an effort to make up with Washington for Europe’s widespread opposition to the Iraq war.

Cuban officials said Castro’s action was necessary to protect national sovereignty against what they described as an effort by the Bush administration to provoke a migration crisis and give Washington a pretext to invade Cuba.

Under a migration agreement signed by the United States and Cuba in 1994, Washington is obliged to issue at least 20,000 visas each year to Cubans wanting to resettle in the United States. Because of stricter screening measures after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, processing of applications has backlogged, with only about 10% of the quota filled in the first nine months of this fiscal year.

“There is a double standard. Those who arrive illegally are cleared within 24 hours, but legal immigrants have to wait months,” Dausa said. “This is why we think it’s a pretext, to delay legal migration and encourage illegal migration.”

Cason dismissed the allegations as “nonsense,” although he acknowledged that processing has fallen behind because of the more demanding verification procedures.

As part of the migration accord, the U.S. agreed to the visa quota as a safety valve to take pressure off the Cuban economy, which has suffered tremendously from the collapse of the Communist empire and its trade bloc. In exchange, Havana is supposed to prevent any further inundation of rafters similar to that which occurred in 1994, at the height of the post-Soviet crisis, and again in 1996, when the Cuban military shot down two private U.S. planes carrying Cuban Americans trying to stir opposition to Castro.

Any mass exodus from Cuba would be regarded as a hostile act aimed at the United States, the agreement states, which provides Cuba with its rationale that something had to be done.

Dausa suggested that Havana expects eventual resurrection of the campaign to lift the U.S. embargo. “I think businesspeople will continue to have interest in dealing with Cuba because it’s beneficial for them and for us,” he said.

Alexander, of the Cuba Policy group, agrees that the logic of constructive engagement remains, but he predicts that movement will have to wait at least until after the 2004 presidential election.

Members of Congress and state officials from across the political spectrum had met with dissidents during their visits to Cuba, he said, making the issue a very personal one for those on the pro-engagement bandwagon who believe that they have been blindsided by Castro.

“This is no small thing that has occurred. Every single one of these delegates dozens, hundreds of them met with dissidents. Now we have to say, ‘I know a political prisoner,’ “Alexander said. “That’s something that makes you think twice about the urgency of focusing on trade.”

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