The Cuba Elian might return to

Custody saga focuses renewed attention on the island's human rights record and quality of life.

Like white noise, US criticism of Cuba's human rights policies has gone on so long that it's almost unheard.

But the custody dispute over a six-year-old boy has suddenly changed the volume, prompting a fresh look at the kind of oppression Cubans face under Fidel Castro Ruz.

A three-judge panel is expected to hear testimony today in Atlanta about whether Elian Gonzalez can have an asylum hearing to stay in the US. If he returns to Cuba - as many expect - Elian will live in an environment that is typical of a communist regime. He will probably have a file at his elementary school, for example, that, in addition to recording his grades, will document his political leanings and the degree of loyalty his father shows toward President Castro.

If his father were considered a political dissident, state security agents would watch his every move. His phone would be tapped. And his job would be in jeopardy.

But even if the Gonzalez family members were faithful Fidelistas (and they've indicated that they are), they could expect that in the neighborhood, there would be a local representative from the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, who will record their comings and goings.

"It's an efficient and repressive regime," says Jose Cardenas, Washington director of the Cuban American National Foundation, a lobbying group that supports the decades-old US embargo against Cuba.

But Cuba is not the brutal military dictatorship that some associate with Latin America. Killings and abductions are rare, and the regime allows some dissidence - if it doesn't attract a too much attention.

Cuba in context

Unlike some other countries under strict US embargoes, Cuba is relatively advanced in areas such as healthcare and education. Because more than half the population was born after Mr. Castro came to power, people know what is tolerated and what can lead to a prison sentence.

"One remarkable thing about Havana is that there is not widespread misery and abject poverty," says one well-known human rights activist in the US. "For all the restrictions, people are allowed to live decent lives."

Yet, conditions have worsened since the Soviet Union fell and Moscow stopped propping up Havana.

When Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in January 1998, there was reason for human rights observers to be optimistic.

Cubans were allowed to demonstrate their faith. Journalists were given slightly more leeway than usual. And, soon after the Pope left, more than 100 political prisoners were freed.

Since then, however, the human rights climate in Cuba has worsened, analysts say. According to Amnesty International's 1999 annual Report, there are about 350 political prisoners kept on the island, 100 of them falling in the nonviolent "prisoner of conscience" category. The total population is about 11 million.

Human Rights Watch, based in New York, says it has been denied entry to Cuba since 1995 and the International Committee for the Red Cross has been denied access to prisoners for more than 10 years.

According to reports, Cuba denies basic rights of expression, association, and assembly. Those who break the code are interrogated, harassed, and sometimes imprisoned, though the length of jail terms has shortened in recent years. People considered dissidents can also be put under house arrest or evicted from their homes.

This year, people have been detained for planning a commemoration of the Pope's visit and for organizing classes about civil disobedience. In 1997, a doctor was arrested for alerting the international press to a fever epidemic, says Human Rights Watch. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Prison conditions are said to be harsh, with long pretrial detentions, frequent malnutrition, and regular solitary confinement. There are also reports of police brutality, and 10 unarmed civilians were killed by lethal police force in 1998, according to Amnesty International.

Another hardship Cubans face is that the government makes it difficult for them to leave - a law enforced most effectively by the water surrounding the island.

Castro: Head of everything

And then there is Castro. "Cuba is a totalitarian state controlled by President Fidel Castro, who is chief of state, head of government, first secretary of the Communist Party, and commander in chief of the armed forces," says a 1999 US State Department report.

US policy toward Cuba, defined by a strict embargo dating back to the '60s, has been a source of contention. The embargo was loosened under President Jimmy Carter, but has been tightened in the '90s.

The State Department and many Cuban Americans argue that it is correct to isolate Castro as much as possible. Indeed, Castro has been unyielding over the years.

Others, including Canada and America's European allies, have maintained that the embargo has some counterproductive effects - such as allowing Havana to use the US as a scapegoat and isolating common Cubans.

"I don't think it's done anything to improve the human rights situation in Cuba," says Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America. "It's done the opposite."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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