Harsh spotlight falls on Cuba

Crackdown on dissidents has dismayed countries that thought the regime was easing its hard line.

As a swift crackdown against Cuban dissidents brings global condemnation and the promise of further isolation, proponents of normal relations with the island regime are bewildered at Fidel Castro's rebuff of their efforts.

Seventy-five dissidents were convicted this month of being US-backed mercenaries conspiring to undermine the Cuban government. A roster of activists - whose offenses ranged from promoting uncensored libraries and private news services to advocating political reform - was handed prison sentences of as much as 28 years.

The harsh convictions hit particularly hard in the wake of perceptions the regime was softening its stance against internal dissent - as well as boosting informal ties with the United States. Now, Castro's actions are seen as a reminder that the dictator will tolerate no real challenge to his regime.

"Those who thought that Castro had mellowed with age were a bit naive," says Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. "He has always been willing to sacrifice international goodwill and the Cuban economy for state security."

In Washington, the Bush administration has condemned the crackdown. It also marshaled a rebuke of Cuba at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Committee last week, for both the political roundup as well as the recent execution of three Cuban hijackers who seized a Havana commuter ferry with the intention of sailing it to the US. Cuban security forces recaptured the boat and arrested the hijackers, without injury to the hostages.

The White House is reportedly contemplating ways to tighten its four-decade economic embargo against Cuba, while a number of other Western governments are expected to cut back diplomatic ties with Castro. The European Union has condemned the dissidents' convictions and demanded "those persons, whom it considers prisoners of conscience, be released without delay."

"We were dismayed watching the dissident trials. The executions put the lid on it," a European diplomat in Havana says. "There has been a real feeling of indignation and disappointment, a sense we simply cannot let this pass."

Indeed, the recent dismay with Cuba stands in marked contrast to the mood just a few months ago.

Last December, Oswaldo Paya, Cuba's leading democracy activist, was permitted to leave the island to receive a European peace award. On that trip, Mr. Paya met with Secretary of State Colin Powell, Pope John Paul II, and former Czech President Vaclav Havel as he built support for his Varela Project - a petition for human rights, freedom for political prisoners, and electoral reform.

That Paya was able to work, albeit with some government-imposed obstacles, was to many a sign that Castro was willing to countenance political reform. As Cuba's US-backed dissidents chalked up a number of modest triumphs, Castro, too, benefited from good publicity and was seen by many to be shrewdly chipping away at the US trade embargo that has so damaged his ailing economy.

A visit to Cuba last spring by former President Jimmy Carter was only the most widely publicized in a string of US congressional and state delegations over the past year that bolstered a campaign to repeal the embargo.

For Brian Alexander of the Cuban Policy Foundation, a group that wants the trade embargo lifted, Castro's charm offensive hit its peak last October when Havana hosted an expo of American agricultural products, which are exempted from the trade embargo.

"The Cubans got quite a lot of publicity at the expo, and there was a sense that the movement to end the embargo was growing stronger," Mr. Alexander says. "Now they have hit their base of support in Washington with a sledgehammer. Politically, Cuba is making the embargo a third rail. Politicians who went out on a limb for Cuba are feeling stunned and apprehensive."

Indeed, less than a year ago, the House of Representatives voted to block the administration from enforcing a ban on Americans traveling to Cuba, a measure that was interpreted as bolstering support for lifting the embargo.

But last week, the mood on Capitol Hill shifted dramatically. Both supporters and opponents of the embargo in the House voted unanimously, 414-0, to condemn Cuba.

For all the criticism of the political crackdown, many see recent events as just one example of a more far-reaching curtailment of freedom on the island as Castro consolidates power for his eventual successor, considered to be his brother Raul.

For many, it began with a widely publicized antidrug campaign of in January. Days later, Cuba's state-run media carried stories of a wider crackdown against black-marketeering enterprises, from massive garment presses and private kitchens to unlicensed landlords and repair shops outside the island's state-run economy. The few licensed private entrepreneurs on the island also came under scrutiny.

Most of the recently convicted dissidents were charged under Law 88, which promises tough sentences for Cubans convicted of conspiring with a foreign power. Those convictions and the summary execution of the boat hijackers, coming after a number of other incidents in which hijacked Cuban airplanes were given sanctuary in Florida, were seen as a reminder that Castro was unwilling to brook dissent.

"This is the sort of housecleaning that other dictators from Stalin to Mao have been willing to do before they go," Mr. Suchlicki says.

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