Behind Cuba's Crackdown

Fidel Castro speaks in Malaysia
Fidel Castro speaks at a public lecture in Kuala Lumpur, May 11, 2001 (Photo: Jimin Lai/AFP).

On the night of April 4, all of Cuba’s three government-owned television stations devoted their prime-time programming to Fidel Castro. Dressed in his trademark military fatigues, the 76-year-old commandante spoke for nearly five hours. This in itself was not unusual, but the president seemed in a surprisingly good mood given the events of the past week. A tense hostage standoff with a group of hijackers who commandeered a passenger ferry in an attempt to reach the United States had just been resolved, and all the hostages were safe.

It had been the third such hijacking in nearly two weeks, and Castro railed against U.S. policies that, he said, continue to encourage such “terrorist” endeavors. But he also joked about the amateur—if not comical—efforts of the hijackers, who allegedly professed their love for the Cuban leader during his negotiations with them. The commandante laughed and members of the studio audience laughed with him.

At dawn on April 11, the three lead hijackers were sent before a firing squad and executed, having been hastily tried and convicted barely three days earlier.

The deluge of international criticism over their quick executions has added to existing outrage at the Cuban government’s recent arrests of its domestic critics. In March, more than 100 alleged dissidents were arrested by state security forces in a crackdown that was unprecedented in its severity. Most of the detainees were tried and convicted in swift, closed-door proceedings—some of which lasted only a few hours—and given prison sentences averaging 20 years. Family members complained that defendants hardly had the chance to meet with their attorneys before standing trial.

Those arrested included many of the Cuban government’s most prominent dissident activists. Raúl Rivero, Cuba’s best-known independent journalist, was handed a 20-year sentence. Marta Beatriz Roque, a dissident economist who had previously been jailed for anti-Castro activities, also received a 20-year sentence. And Hector Palacios, one of the lead organizers of the Varela Project, a petition campaign seeking to reform Cuba’s command economy and one-party state, got a 25-year sentence.

International repercussions from these measures have been swift and significant. The war of words between Washington and Havana has escalated to new heights. The mutual antagonism carried over to Geneva, where, on April 17, after a one-day postponement and hours of heated debate, Cuba received a rebuke for its human-rights record at the annual meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

The resolution, watered down from the outright condemnation sought by the United States, once more called on Cuba to accept a visit from a U.N. human-rights monitor. Even this version did not garner the support of some Latin American countries: Chile, Peru, Mexico, and Uruguay voted in favor of the resolution, but Argentina and Brazil abstained. Cuba quickly dismissed the milder resolution as “spurious and illegal,” and blasted the Latin American countries who voted against Havana as “vile lackeys,” “traitors,” and “puppets” of Washington.

Meanwhile, nascent dissident movements in Cuba have been decimated. The Varela Project—whose founder, Oswaldo Payá, won the European Union’s top human-rights award in December 2002—has been hit particularly hard. More than half of those arrested and convicted were members of the group, which sought a referendum in Cuba’s National Assembly on a plan to liberalize the state-run economy and one-party political system. Payá himself, and a few other prominent dissidents like Elizardo Sanchez, have yet to be arrested, possibly because the Cuban government is trying to avoid drawing additional criticism.

Undoubtedly, though, an era of relative tolerance for dissent in Cuba has come to an abrupt end and old enmities are being rekindled. Miami-based anti-Castro exile groups, whose credibility with mainstream audiences was sullied by the Elián Gonzalez affair, are now back in action, calling for harsher economic sanctions on Cuba and even “regime change” in Havana. Many of Cuba’s historical allies—sympathetic foreign governments, political organizations, prominent celebrities, and intellectuals—also say they are disgusted.

The timing of the crackdown, coinciding directly with the U.S.-led war in Iraq, has also led to much speculation. Commentators around the world have argued that Castro deliberately planned the crackdown at a time when he knew international attention would be elsewhere. But Cuba launched its internal offensive only weeks before the annual meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva—where it had a rare chance to escape censure—and days before the European Union opened its first office in Havana.

As a result of Cuba’s repressive measures, the E.U. has put on hold an aid package brokered under the June 2000 Cotonou Agreement on trade, which was worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Cuba, and which would have provided Cuba with a badly needed injection of foreign capital.

Nor can it be said that the Cuban government’s actions have gone unnoticed by the international media. Those in Washington who had called for a more open U.S. policy on Cuba have fallen silent or have reversed their position. Lawmakers in the United States who have long argued for ending sanctions against Cuba, like Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY), have publicly expressed their outrage, and planned visits to Cuba from U.S. farm state representatives and other U.S. delegations are being cancelled. Even Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese novelist José Saramago, a staunch Cuba supporter among European intellectuals, lamented in the April 14 edition of Madrid’s El Pais that “Cuba has won no heroic victory by executing these three men, but it has lost my confidence, damaged my hopes, robbed me of illusions. This is as far as I go.”

If anything, Cuba’s draconian measures have bolstered an argument that many Castro critics have been making for years: that whenever the U.S. embargo seems on the verge of being weakened, the tricky commandante does something provocative to stir up the pro-embargo lobby. This historical pattern repeated itself most recently in 1996, when Cuba shot down two airplanes belonging to the anti-Castro Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue, killing four people. The planes were flying over international waters. Immediately after this incident, the Helms-Burton Act was approved by the U.S. Congress, further tightening the U.S. embargo—and Castro’s own grasp on power.

Other analysts say the crackdown is Castro’s pre-emptive response to the Bush administration’s aggressive new foreign policy. Though it didn’t merit a place on President Bush’s “axis of evil,” the Cuban administration clearly feels it may be on the U.S. hawks’ laundry list of nations due for “regime change.” According to these theorists, the crackdown was Cuba’s effort to stage a little “shock and awe” of its own, sending a clear message to Washington about the firmness of Havana’s resolve.

Almost certainly, Cuba is also reacting to direct provocations by the Bush administration, which has made little effort to conceal its attempts to organize and assist the dissident groups that oppose Cuba’s one-party system. In recent months, James Cason, the chief officer of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana—the United States’ de-facto embassy—has assumed an increasingly outspoken role in criticizing the Cuban government and promoting dissident organizations.

The single event that seems to have led directly to the recent crackdown was the press conference held by Cason in the home of Marta Beatriz Roque in February, where he told reporters that a political transition was already underway in Cuba. “The Cuban government is afraid: afraid of freedom of conscience, afraid of freedom of expression, afraid of human rights,” he declared.

There is little question that Cason’s actions have enraged the Cuban government. At an April 9 press conference, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque asserted that Cason “came to Cuba with the plan of creating a single party of dissidents in Cuba,” a plan he advanced, Pérez Roque says, by channeling funds to dissident groups and encouraging them to unite. By way of evidence, Cuba points to the millions of dollars in U.S. funds routed into non-governmental organizations like Freedom House and the Center for a Free Cuba, which fund anti-Castro programs inside Cuba. It alleges that dissident journalist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who received a 20-year prison sentence, was caught with US$13,000 in cash—a huge amount of money in a country where the average monthly salary is around US$15 a month.

Another factor is the status of five Cuban spies currently serving long prison sentences in U.S. federal prisons. The Cuban government has hailed the men as “heroes of the homeland,” and mounted a colossal propaganda campaign on behalf of their release. Some have argued that the arrest and imprisonment of Cuban dissidents is a tit-for-tat response to the spies’ case and an effort to gain some leverage for their upcoming appeal in Atlanta.

Spying has also been a feature of the recent trials. Already shocked at the government’s harsh measures, Cuba-watchers reeled at revelations that many of the “dissidents” were actually undercover Cuban government agents. Journalist David Manuel Orrio worked undercover for over 10 years, it emerged, during which time he wrote hundreds of articles—many with anti-Castro overtones—for a Miami-based news service. Ironically, Orrio even organized a conference on journalism ethics at Cason’s residence in Havana.

That Cuban State Security decided to unmask agents such as Orrio shows the crackdown was designed to send a message to other potential anti-Castro organizers. Cuban television programs have been interviewing the agents ever since the trials, lauding them as heroes and celebrating their cloak-and-dagger exploits. The testimony of Orrio and others was a key part of the evidence brought by prosecutors against the dissidents.

Likewise, the swift execution of the ferry hijackers was intended to send a clear message to any would-be imitators. In the two weeks before the ferry incident, two Cuban planes were hijacked and diverted to Florida, and a day before the executions, Cuban authorities claim they foiled another air piracy plot by Cubans seeking to reach U.S. territory. U.S. authorities periodically warn that Cuban hijackers who reach the U.S. will be tried under U.S. law, but soften their message by blaming hijackings on the island's dire economic and political situation. Conversely, Cuba has accused the U.S. of spurring such desperate acts by failing to comply with agreements that grant 20,000 immigration visas to Cubans each year through a lottery system. Cuba's foreign ministry says that U.S. authorities have issued only 505 visas so far this year.

While the arrest and conviction of the dissidents has angered organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the decision to summarily execute the three hijackers has alienated even some of Cuba’s left-leaning allies. Criticism has come from such diverse sources as the French Socialist Party, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, and the prominent Uruguyan writer Eduardo Galeano. “In the hard road it has traversed in so many years,” Galeano wrote in the April 18 edition of Mexico City’s La Jornada, “the revolution has lost the wind of spontaneity and freshness that has driven her from the start. I say it with pain. Cuba hurts.”

Meanwhile, the flood of international condemnation has left many Cubans fearful for the future. The New York Times has reported that President Bush is preparing to issue a statement on Cuba’s crackdown, including a stern warning that the United States will not tolerate another mass exodus of Cuban rafters to the United States, as happened in 1980 and 1994. The Times has also reported that the Bush administration is considering a retaliatory move that would revoke Cuban-Americans’ ability to send money to their families on the island, and end direct flights to Cuba from the United States.

Such measures risk worsening the acute poverty on the island while doing little to affect the political situation, says Gerardo Sanchez, of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and Reconciliation, the independent Havana organization that monitored the dissidents’ trials. “The economic impact would be tremendous,” he said, adding that he himself receives cash sent from relatives in the United States. “That’s what many people here depend on to survive.”