April 10, 2003

Cuba News / The Miami Herald

Cuba: Dissidents were eroding socialist system

By Nancy San Martin. The Miami Herald, April 10, 2003.

Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque Wednesday defended the government's imprisonment of scores of dissidents as an effort to protect Cuba's sovereignty in the face of an aggressive U.S. policy.

In a news conference of more than three hours in Havana, Pérez Roque said the arrests, summary trials and harsh sentences against 75 dissidents were justified because the principal U.S. diplomat in Cuba, James Cason, was leading a plan to undermine Communist control of Cuba by supporting groups opposed to Fidel Castro's government.

''Our patience ran out with Mr. Cason,'' Pérez Roque said. "We have been patient, we have been tolerant, but we have been obligated to apply our laws.''

Pérez Roque's detailed presentation on Wednesday was the government's first substantial response to the trials and the subsequent sentences of 6 to 28 years that have alarmed various nations, human rights groups and press organizations from around the world.

On Wednesday, human rights activist Elizardo Sánchez, one of the few who remains free, called the arrests "the most intense wave of repression in the history of Cuba. Rarely has Latin America seen so many people accused for crimes of opinion.''

Pérez Roque denied that the crackdown was timed to coincide with the world's preoccupation with the war on Iraq, or was somehow related to a recent string of hijackings carried out over the past three weeks, including two planes that made it to Florida and a ferry boat that was towed back to Cuba.

All of the government opponents -- including just one woman -- were prosecuted on state security charges in trials that were closed to international reporters and foreign diplomats. The foreign minister bristled at the suggestion that they were deliberately kept out.

''Who has said that a foreign diplomat has the right to the trial of someone on trial who is not a citizen of their country?'' Pérez Roque declared. "If they need information on the trials, they can come to the foreign ministry.''

The Cuban government has accused the independent journalists, pro-democracy activists, opposition party leaders and other dissidents of receiving U.S. funds and collaborating with American diplomats to undermine the socialist system.

The repressive action also has spurred efforts to censure Cuba as soon as next week at the annual gathering of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.

''There are questions about the fairness of such expedited proceedings,'' Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said Wednesday in Geneva. "Cuba must ensure that the accused benefit from due process, including the right to an adequate defense.''

In an announcement that appeared in Granma, the Communist Party daily, the government stated that those sentenced would have the right to appeal under Cuban law -- an indication that punishments might be lessened.

The foreign minister repeated the right to appeals Wednesday. He also said that the legal proceedings strictly followed Cuban law, with all defendants represented by attorneys. They all heard the charges against them, had a chance to respond and in each case both evidence and witnesses were presented in open court, Pérez Roque added.

As evidence that dissidents were being rewarded financially by the U.S. government, Pérez Roque presented letters and detailed lists of payments, among numerous documents, that were linked to U.S. funds. Many of the payments mentioned appeared to come from Miami- or Washington-based groups that receive funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

''It's no different from what the United States does all over the world,'' said Joe Garcia, executive director of the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation. "These are public funds that go to nonprofit corporations.''

The CANF, which has repeatedly been accused by Cuba of trying to subvert its system, does not receive U.S. funds. However, it regularly provides private aid to Cuba in a variety of ways -- from supporting soup kitchens to providing materials such as pencils and books. Recently, the group sent money to families of dissidents caught in the island-wide dragnet.

''Fidel Castro has said he will strangle, that there is no oxygen for these people in Cuba,'' Garcia said. "What we are giving them is oxygen.''

During Pérez Roque's presentation, authorities showed various video recordings, including several of state security agents who had posed as dissidents and revealed their true identities during last week's trials.

Independent journalist Néstor Baguer, who revealed last week he was really a government spy known as ''Octavio,'' told a government interviewer in one tape that his colleagues in the dissident press received money from groups in the United States linked to the government.

''They are not journalists,'' Baguer said of Cuba's independent press. "They are information terrorists.''

This report was supplemented with material from The Associated Press.

New purpose for embargo foes

Cuba defends its crackdown

By Nancy San Martin. Posted on Thu, Apr. 10, 2003.

Critics of U.S. policy toward Cuba say the recent crackdown against dissidents on the island offers fresh proof that easing the economic and travel embargo is necessary in order to reduce Cuba's isolation.

''Right now, Fidel Castro has the only microphone out there; let's make it more difficult for the Castro regime to keep control of the situation,'' said Rep. Jeff Flake, a conservative Republican from Arizona, who plans to propose legislation again this year to prohibit the use of U.S. funds to enforce the travel ban.

Flake is among a group of lawmakers whose anti-embargo position had been gaining momentum before the Cuban government dealt a crushing blow to the opposition movement by a sudden decision to imprison scores of dissidents for terms of up to 28 years for alleged subversion.

Cuba vigorously defended its action Wednesday, saying the summary trials and heavy sentences were justified by the need to protect itself from outside efforts to change its system. Cuba has accused the independent journalists, pro-democracy activists, opposition party leaders and other opponents of receiving U.S. funds and collaborating with American diplomats in Havana to undermine the socialist system.

Even as moderates have joined the chorus of world-wide condemnation against the arrests, they say maintaining or tightening current policy would further harm to those on the island.

''Now, more than ever, we are committed to opening,'' said Silvia Wilhelm, founder of an anti-embargo group that works on individual contacts with Cuban residents. "We believe all these actions are in part related to the isolation and this rhetoric of aggression and war.''

Still, moderates acknowledge that it will be more difficult to persuade the Bush administration to lift sanctions in the wake of the arrests. The State Department already has issued strong remarks against the Cuban government, and officials have said a more explicit response is being drafted.

''We're constantly looking at the situation down there and making adjustments that are appropriate to the circumstances,'' said Charles Barclay, a State Department spokesman.

Already, pressure is building for the Bush administration to take drastic measures in response to the crackdown.

''It's over for words and condemnations,'' said Ninoska Pérez Castellón of the Miami-based Cuban Liberty Council, which is advocating a suspension of all remittances and travel to Cuba, as well as, the imposition of multilateral sanctions and a preemptive warning that would result in a naval blockade if a mass exodus out of the island were to ensue.

Dennis Hays of the Cuban American National Foundation said critics of the U.S. embargo face strong opposition.

''Who, with a straight face could actually propose rewarding Castro at this point?,'' he said.

Flake -- who, along with most all lawmakers in both the House and Senate, voted in favor of resolutions condemning the Cuban government's actions -- said he and others do not view the lifting of sanctions as a reward but rather as a way to undermine the Cuban government.

''Everything that is happening in Cuba, is happening under the old policy,'' Flake said. "It hasn't changed Castro one bit. He's still a thug.''

Carlos Saladrigas, chairman of the Miami-based Cuba Study Group, said this is a time for reflection and analysis, "to cultivate a positive response.''

"We need to send a message to the Cuban people that is more conciliatory, a message that urges possible reformers in the government to continue to push for peaceful, democratic change. We need to strengthen what is left of the opposition.''

Alfredo Duran, an activist who opposes the embargo, said: "The government will change and Cuba will still be there.''

A Pulitzer For Nilo Cruz

Posted on Thu, Apr. 10, 2003

A 19th Century Russian novel planted the seed. A Coral Gables stage helped it germinate. Now it's in full bloom: Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics won the Pulitzer Prize.

It is a dazzlingly high honor. We give Mr. Cruz, born in Cuba and reared in New York, our heartfelt congratulations.

Inspired by Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Mr. Cruz pays tribute to the Cuban pioneers of Tampa's Ybor City. Early last century, men labored in the cigar factories in that Spanish-Cuban enclave. The lectors, educated and literate, read aloud newspapers, journals or Shakespearean plays as the others worked. These readings helped the workers transcend their limited horizons.

The New Theater commissioned Anna in the Tropics last year. The theater also deserves applause -- and fervent community support -- for its foresight and faith in the playwright.

Mr. Cruz's play won the Pulitzer solely on the strength of its script. It was the only play in contention that judges didn't see performed first.

Anna in the Tropics is a work about imperiled heritage and lost traditions. Its seed may be rooted in another time, but the play clearly remains timeless and resonant.

Bravo, Mr. Cruz.


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