Human Rights and the War on Terrorism

Castro and Iraq

Right after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, one political commentator spoke with concern of a resulting “lucky break” for authoritarian regimes. This meant there was now a risk that the struggle against Islamic terrorism would serve as cover to various dictators bent on smashing their internal opposition.

In fact, this is exactly what happened. The Chinese stepped up their repression against ethnic Uighurs, who are Muslims, in Xinjiang province; the Russians brought a bit more suffering to the Chechens. Other regimes did similar things, pleased to take advantage of the world situation to kill, beat, and torture opponents in the name of the sacrosanct war on terror.

It would have been surprising to find Fidel Castro absent from this particular party. In his own way, he chose to attend, although waiting for a slightly different invitation. The Cuban dictator held back until war was unleashed on Iraq before he began ripping into the opponents of his rule. With that blend of cynicism and brutality that the Havana regime is known for, Castro is counting on the silence of the world press, too busy with events along the Tigris and Euphrates to worry about Cuba. His hope is to play on the passivity of  Western governments, concerned above all about healing the breaches in their own ranks caused by the British-American military campaign against Iraq.

Even as the war against Iraq was getting started, the Cuban police were busy with one of the toughest campaigns of repression that the island has seen in more than a decade. In just two weeks, the Cuban regime has arrested 78 dissidents.

Their trials began on April 3 in Havana and in several provincial cities. These are “Moscow-style” trials: defense lawyers barred from seeing the case files before the trial; neither journalists nor diplomats present in the court; draconian charges, punishable by prison terms ranging up to life. Against whom?

Against men and women whose offense was simply this: to try to ensure that a modest measure of liberty was respected under Cuba’s own laws. Fidel Castro is out to crush the activists supporting Project Varela, a campaign launched last year that seeks democratic change by constitutional means. The admirable Marta Beatriz Roque, an economist who has become a symbol of resistance to the regime, could get life in prison [Roque received a 20-year sentence on April 7. —WPR]; the poet Raúl Rivero, 20 years. More than 20 independent journalists have been arrested, along with about 50 human-rights advocates. They are being prosecuted for their dissident views, for having had the courage to oppose the Castro regime.

Who will march in their name in the big cities of the West? Reporters Without Borders, an international organization for the protection of journalists, has come to their defense.

A petition signed by a group of renowned European intellectuals is demanding that they be freed immediately. Castro knows that even a small sign of political relaxation would be the beginning of the end for his dictatorship. He is depending on the world’s attention being riveted on the war in Iraq and its aftermath. On that last point, it’s essential to prove him wrong and to talk about Cuba.