New Cuban rights abuse: no excuse to slow US outreach

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Fidel Castro's response to the international condemnation following his recent roundup and sentencing of 75 Cuban dissidents has been to blame the United States.

To be sure, chief US diplomat James Cason and others at the US mission in Havana have been providing assistance to Cuba's emerging indigenous civil society by supplying informational materials, hosting meetings, and providing access to the Internet. Mr. Castro's latest actions - which now include the summary execution of three Cubans who highjacked a ferry in an attempt to flee to the US - are stark reminders of Cuba's appalling human rights record, and leave little doubt that the US initiative to aid civil society in Cuba is well intentioned.

The 75, whose prison terms averaged 20 years each, were charged with associating with American diplomats, belonging to "illegal" groups of independent journalists, and running independent newspapers and libraries.

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Human rights organizations and governments around the world have condemned the crackdown. Secretary of State Colin Powell rightly called on the Cuban government to "end this despicable repression and free these prisoners of conscience," because "their only crime was seeking basic human rights and freedoms."

But the US now faces a difficult situation. On the one hand, Castro's shocking actions raise the urgency for greater freedom on the island. On the other, because Castro rather predictably used the US outreach as justification to quash the dissident movement, the effectiveness of US efforts to aid civil society has to be questioned. In a sense, the good intentions may only have made the situation worse.

Civil society on the island has been dealt a significant blow.

Leading Cuban dissident Elizardo Sánchez, who was spared arrest, calls the crackdown "the decapitation of the dissident movement." While some in the US will argue that Castro's violent response to US outreach is a sign that such efforts are having an effect, the imprisonment of 75 key opposition figures hardly qualifies as a success either in human or in tactical terms.

Furthermore, the integrity of the outreach program is questionable, when 12 of the dissidents' colleagues were revealed in trial testimony as informants for Castro, including several that had been given passes to the US diplomatic compound.

History suggests that stability in the Florida Straits is at risk when crackdowns occur. In 1980 and 1994 Castro crackdowns were precursors to migration crises. Further, the recent highjackings demonstrate renewed desperation in Cuba.

Some hard-liners in the US might favor disruption in Cuba. But the US would be better off without it. The focus and great dedication of America's armed service personnel is in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station, which has processed Cuban rafters back into their country, is engaged detaining, guarding, and questioning Al Qaeda suspects. An extreme rafter crisis could therefore result in the shepherding of thousands of fleeing Cubans to US soil, virtually ensuring they'd be here to stay.

That the US would be better off without a crisis in Cuba may well be part of Castro's calculation. Not unlike the escalatory behavior of North Korea's Kim Jong Il this fall, Castro's gambit may be to rattle America's cage at the most inconvenient time possible. Rather than creating nuclear warheads and intercepting spy planes, Castro uses political prisoners and the threat of a rafter crisis to draw US attention.

Castro no doubt understood that his actions would stir negative reactions in the US and bolster the position of pro-embargo hard-liners. Such calculations are important to the US debate over the embargo on Cuba because Castro knows the embargo helps keep him in power.

Prior to the crackdown, support to ease the embargo had been growing in Congress and among Americans - and even among Cuban-Americans. But that's changed following Castro's recent terror. However, Washington lawmakers appear to be losing confidence in easing the embargo to bring productive change to Cuba.

But this reactionary behavior is mistaken. The trade and travel embargo, while a symbolically hard-line gesture against Castro, only strengthens his hold on the Cuban people.

The four-decades old embargo has failed to dislodge Castro, and Castro's ongoing ability to terrorize dissidents indicates the inability of economic sanctions to bring about reform.

Using limited economic engagement and increasing American travel to the island are viable methods of improving outreach to Cubans and practical ways to craft a positive future for the island. US political support for civil society is difficult to do without expanding engagement at multiple levels.

Meanwhile, the imperative is greater than ever for the US to advance President Bush's commitment to promote civil society in Cuba and to respond to Castro's oppression. True as that is, those goals are not mutually exclusive with loosening the embargo, but are rather dependent upon it. Let Castro's recent resurgence of terror not steer us off course.

Brian Alexander is executive director of the Cuba Policy Foundation. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the foundation.

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