Friends of Castro now cry foul

Is Cuba burning its recently constructed international bridges?

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the international community - and leaving Washington's "pariah state" Cuba policy to look all the more isolated and outdated.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.

The European Union condemned the sentences as a clear violation of human rights conventions. Germany, current holder of the EU's presidency, demanded the four dissidents' immediate release. The EU "cannot accept that citizens who ... exercised the freedom of expression ... be criminalized by state authorities," the European body said in a statement.

Jos Mara Aznar, Spain's president of the government, called the sentences "grave and harsh," and said his government is considering putting off the trip Spain's king and queen are planning to make to Cuba this spring. Cuba is keenly interested in the royal visit as another in a string of high-profile visits that have boosted Cuba's positive international exposure and helped reestablish Cuba as a "normal" country in the face of the US's pariah treatment. Cuba's image got its biggest boost from the historic visit of Pope John Paul II in January 1998.

Latin America - where the Cuban government has worked especially hard to reestablish strong ties since the fall of the Soviet Union - continues to demonstrate its longstanding division over the Castro regime. On Friday, foreign ministers meeting in Mexico from the 14 Group of Rio countries split over a proposal to issue a condemnation of rights abuses in Cuba.

Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Chile favored a strongly worded rebuke for what Argentine Foreign Minister Guido di Tella called an "alarming" situation in Latin America's last dictatorship. But Mexico and Colombia - both of which have faced strong criticism from the United Nations and international human rights groups for rights abuses within their own borders - argued that it is not the group's place to "judge" any other country.

Chile says it is considering not attending the Ibero-American summit, which brings together Latin countries with Spain and Portugal, scheduled to be held in Cuba in September. Other countries at the Group of Rio meeting said they might form a group to work with Spain and Portugal to force a venue change.

But perhaps the sharpest sting for the Cuban government comes from Canada, which in recent years has positioned itself as Cuba's friend and economic partner with an "engagement" policy designed to contrast with the four-decade-old US policy of isolation.

Canada's 'soft' policy

Canadian leaders say they are not planning to reverse that policy. But Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy said Canada would rethink its effort to reintegrate Cuba into the Organization of American States. Cuba was expelled from the OAS in 1962, three years after Castro took power.

But the case of the dissidents also opens the way within Canada to public questioning of the government's Cuba policy. Opposition leaders say the "soft" policy has failed to produce anything toward its stated goals of rights improvements or openings to democracy.

But a Foreign Affairs Ministry official says: "There's more openness for [nongovernmental organizations], we've seen improvements in religious freedom and women's rights, and we've seen a development in cooperation against drug trafficking. All of that is progress."

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