Cuba Backslides on Reform, Arrests Dissidents

Four activists jailed for urging Cubans to boycott next month's one-party elections.

Magalys de Armas is not a political woman, but she's the kind of wife who stands by her man.

And so ever since her husband, noted Cuban political dissident Vladimirio Roca, was arrested July 16, Mrs. de Armas has been doing what does not come naturally to her: attending embassy dinners to plead her husband's case, receiving foreign journalists, writing letters to human rights organizations. And once a week, for 20 minutes, she visits her husband in Villa Marista prison. "He always said, 'I'm prepared for whatever comes,' but frankly I never thought much about what he meant," she says. "Now I understand. It's really incredible."

Mr. Roca and three other prominent dissidents were arrested after publishing a 10-page rebuttal to an eight-page draft declaration for the Communist Party Congress set for October. Roca's father was a prominent figure in Cuba's communist regime.

Their arrest is just one indication that the sense of progress and emergence onto the international scene that many observers noted until early last year - before Cuba shot down two private US aircraft in February 1996 - has all but disappeared. Despite pressures to widen economic reforms that introduced limited selfemployment last year, the reforms have stopped.

Their arrest is one indication that the sense of progress ... many noted has all but disappeared.

Another factor causing tension is the poor performance of the dominant agricultural sector.

In their rebuttal, the four Cubans criticize the Communist Party draft declaration for focusing on an "absurd" interpretation of Cuban history, while offering little in the way of proposals for Cuba's future. They also offered suggestions for moving Cuba toward a multiparty system. In addition to Mr. Roca, the other dissidents arrested are Flix Bonne, a longtime prodemocracy advocate; Martha Beatriz Roque, a former government economist who founded an organization of independent economists; and Rne Gmez Manzano; founder of a group of independent lawyers. Their document, plus suggestions that Cubans should boycott October elections and that foreigners should refrain from investing in Cuba until the political and economic systems change, landed them in Villa Marista.

Their detention comes at a sensitive time for the regime. President Fidel Castro was reportedly infuriated by a document the White House issued early this year detailing how the US would assist a political transition in Cuba. Cuba's response was to retrench from any actions that might be construed as a "transition."

Yet while Cuba's Communist regime is accustomed to the hostility from the United States, it now finds itself up against a tougher European Union as well, especially since a conservative government was elected in Spain. The EU has frozen negotiations toward the kind of closer economic ties it has with much of the rest of Latin America until Cuba commits to political reforms and better respect of human rights.

On top of all this, bombs have been exploding since April in tourist locations, rattling the increasingly important tourism sector and challenging the myth of popular unity. The Cuban government announced Sept. 10 the arrest of a Salvadoran it said was acting as a "mercenary" for the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, which denies the charges.

In this environment of mounting tension and with the twice-a-decade party congress coming up, the kind of blatant dissidence the four demonstrated had little chance of being tolerated, observers say. "The regime is not going to allow that kind of action," says Carlos Batista Odio, assistant director of the Center for United States Studies at the University of Havana.

The dissidents' action, like so much in this country, was addressed in terms of what the regime interpreted as its relationship to the US and US policy toward Cuba. Not only was the four's rebuttal seen as an internal manifestation of President Clinton's "transition" document, observers say, but the document was, for the government, an invitation for US intervention in Cuba.

"The reality is that if Cuba starts to change, the US is going to participate, and in general for the worse, at least with respect to socialism," says Mr. Batista. Roca, for example, helped found the illegal Social Democratic Party and advocates a multiparty system. "If other parties did exist," says Batista, "they would receive money from the US, no question."

The Castro regime isn't leaving any doubt about its readiness to squash the kind of action the four dissidents took. "There was nothing subtle" about the government's action, says de Armas, Roca's wife. "The police were in our house from 5 a.m. until 12:30 in the afternoon," she says. "They looked through absolutely everything, and took what they wanted." She says the police seized 123 books, a metal file cabinet, a camera, a calculator, a radio, even a hole-punch. "They went through every pocket of Vladimirio's clothes, and of course they took a pullover a friend had made for him with the insignia of the Social Democratic Party," she says. The phone line was also cut.

Although the four have yet to be be charged formally with any crime, officials insist there is no question they will be. "They tried to harm the Cuban economy, and they were performing under the instructions of a foreign government," says Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, director of the North America section of the Foreign Ministry. "For those two actions alone they can be prosecuted, and will be prosecuted."

Nor is the government showing any inclination to explain the arrests to foreign governments. EU representatives say their request for a meeting on the arrests with Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina "has been ignored."

Most observers agree that some action on the dissidents will have to take place before the January visit of Pope John Paul II, who has received letters about the case and was an advocate of political rights in Eastern Europe before the fall of communism there.

One line of speculation is that the four may be told they must either leave the country or face a long prison sentence, an option offered in the past. But so far there is little indication the four would accept exile. Relatives of Ms. Beatriz Roque report that when that possibility came up during a prison visit, the economist was categoric: "They can do to me what they want, but I was born Cuban and here I will stay."

De Armas says her husband is equally adamant. "He says if they give him nothing but rocks, he'll eat rocks, but he won't die of hunger, and he's not leaving."

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