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Friends of Castro now cry foul

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 22, 1999



MEXICO CITY

Is Cuba burning its recently constructed international bridges?

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Fidel Castro's government suddenly finds itself on the defensive, just when it was making noticeable progress in building links with the international community - and leaving Washington's "pariah state" Cuba policy to look all the more isolated and outdated.

The immediate cause of world outcry is last week's condemnation to stiff prison terms of four internationally known Cuban dissidents. To Havana's consternation, countries including some of its closest trading partners have jumped on the case as an example of Cuba's continuing violation of basic human rights - in this case freedom of speech and expression.

As for the usually hostile United States, the political storm was not on the agenda when hurricane experts from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration visited Havana last week to trade notes with their Cuban counterparts. The meeting, like recent US-Cuba immigration accords, demonstrates the two governments can shake hands across the political abyss when the issue at hand is of mutual interest.

Another example will come March 28 when a bilateral agreement will allow the Baltimore Orioles to play a Cuban baseball team in Havana - the first appearance of an American ball club in Cuba since the Cuban revolution.

But emblematic of international disappointment over the dissidents is Canada: Perhaps Cuba's closest friend, the government of Prime Minister Jean Chrtien says it is "reviewing" a 14-point cooperation agreement, signed with Mr. Castro in January 1997, to see what action might be taken to concretely express Canada's rejection of the sentences.

Doing what no one had dared

Unlike the former Salvadoran soldier awaiting sentencing in Havana for a string of 1997 bombings that rocked hotels and left one Italian tourist dead, the four dissidents did nothing violent. But they did openly publish a critique of a 1997 Cuban Communist Party platform - something no one dared do before in the 40 years of the one-party regime.

The dissidents are economist Marta Beatrz Roque; Ren Gmez, a lawyer; Flix Bonne, an engineer; and Vladimiro Roca, a former fighter pilot and son of founding Cuban Communist Party member Blas Roca. The Cuban government found them guilty of sedition, saying they accepted US assistance "to encourage civil disobedience and transgression of current law."

The sentences range from 3-1/2 years to 5 years for Mr. Roca, leader of Cuba's banned social-democratic movement.

But foreign governments that have moved closer to the Communist island since the end of the cold war are not buying the government's justifications.

Instead, the case is causing some of the island's best international friends to go further in criticizing Castro's regime than any time in recent years.

Foreign leaders who had openly pressed Cuba to release the four since their arrest in July 1997 are now discovering that Castro is serious when he insists he will not bow to any foreign pressure to democratize his system.

What remains to be seen is if any of Cuba's foreign friends will actually question their policies of "constructive engagement" and economic partnership with the dictatorship. In recent years foreign investment, primarily from Canada, Mexico, and Spain and other European countries, has grown substantially as Cuba has moved to offset the billions of dollars in Soviet subsidies it lost beginning in 1991.