Castro ploy hasn't worked: It's same old cruel regime

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While the US is preoccupied with bringing freedom to Iraq, Fidel Castro is busy extinguishing it for his political opponents in Cuba, 90 miles from the US mainland.

In timing that might not be coincidental, Mr. Castro, during the four weeks of the Iraqi war, has been cracking down on key dissenters who've openly challenged the legitimacy of his regime. Almost 80 have been arrested and swiftly given prison sentences of up to 25 years; 26 of them are "independent" journalists who have challenged the government's media monopoly.

The Castro regime accuses those arrested of conspiring with US diplomats to undermine the socialist state. Actually the crime of almost all of those arrested seems to have been their questioning the ruthless regime and championing the Varela Project, a petition calling for greater basic liberties. Secretary of State Colin Powell has called the crackdown "despicable repression" of people seeking "basic human rights and freedoms."

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This neutralizing of dissent parallels harsh treatment of those seeking to flee Cuba for the US. Earlier this month, three men convicted of hijacking a passenger ferry were executed in a particularly brutal way that has jarred human rights activists around the world. My sources say their families were told on a Thursday afternoon that they could visit the prisoners the next morning. When they arrived Friday, prison authorities told them the men had already been shot and they should go to the cemetery. The insensitivity aroused citizens' hostility, and police had to react forcefully to disperse the crowds.

Analysts who follow Cuba say Castro has been unnerved by dissent and unrest in the wake of economic setbacks. Says one: "He's reacting as though his regime is in its final stages. This is a very dangerous period."

Slumping prices on the world market and sharply lower harvests have played havoc with Cuba's critical sugar production. The cost of producing sugar is higher than the prices earned for it abroad. The harvest this year will be down to about 2 million tons, lower than at the beginning of the last century. Meanwhile, Castro is attempting to restructure the sugar industry, closing 71 of his country's 156 mills, leaving 400,000 workers apprehensive about their future.

Another source of revenue, the tourist industry, has been down two years running - also a disappointment for Castro.

Meanwhile, Cuba has also been denied cheap Venezuelan oil, which flowed for a while at 50,000 barrels a day. The flow was cut last year with the ouster and reinstatement of President Hugo Chávez.

In a desperate financial gamble, Castro recently raided the $250 million set aside to pay hard currency debt to European, Latin American, and Asian countries for essential imports. Instead, he used it to buy US farm products for cash. He was apparently calculating that he could persuade the US Congress to enact legislation freeing up additional exports to Cuba, and approving a flood of tourists to Cuba. The ploy hasn't worked. Nor, given the crackdown on dissenters, does the outlook look good for improving US-Cuban ties. President Bush is threatening new punitive measures.

The repression of dissenters, the harsh treatment of Cubans trying to flee to the US, and the brusque dismissal of the Varela Project seem likely to doom Castro's recent attempts to rehabilitate his image in a variety of international forums like the European Union and the UN Human Rights Commission.

The Varela Project took the form of a petition asking the Cuban National Assembly to hold a referendum on electoral reform, free speech, and amnesty for political prisoners. Incredibly, it was signed at some risk by more than 11,000 Cubans and endorsed publically by former President Jimmy Carter during his visit to Cuba last June. But when Mr. Carter was safely out of Cuba, Castro effectively killed the project.

Thus Castro has veered between measures at times designed to persuade critics that liberalization is in train in Cuba, followed by periods of repression to curtail any movement toward reform that might actually jeopardize the stability of his cruel regime.

For now, repression rules.

John Hughes, a former Monitor editor, served as US assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Reagan administration and UN assistant secretary-general in 1995.

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