Castro cracks down on dissent
April 20, 2003
When ex-President Jimmy Carter visited Cuba last summer, he held out hope that the island’s longtime Communist dictator, Fidel Castro, was finally loosening his iron grip on the long-suffering citizens of his repressive police state.
Well, as it turns out, Carter was dead wrong.
With Washington’s attention focused on Iraq, Syria and the Middle East in general, Castro decided to crack down on dissent by executing three “boat people” and jailing 78 human rights activists. So much for the nave liberal theory espoused by Carter and others that if we treat dictators with kindness and understanding, they’ll behave like human beings. Forget about it because when it comes to respect for human rights, Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein are blood brothers.
As U.S. and coalition armed forces were inspecting Saddam’s torture chambers throughout Iraq, Castro was executing some political prisoners and throwing others into dingy dungeons for prison terms ranging from six to 28 years. That’s how Castro finally answered Carter’s call for Cuba to “join the community of democracies” by recognizing the “fundamental right” of Cuban citizens to change their country’s laws and/or leadership by means of free elections. But that’s not going to happen as long as the 77-year-old dictator-for-life remains in power.
Earlier this month, Castro’s death squads executed three men convicted of “very grave acts of terrorism” for hijacking a passenger ferry. Their “trial” lasted one day and their appeals were denied almost immediately before they were summarily executed. “To execute these men is itself a human rights violation, and to do it less than two weeks after their alleged crimes shows a flagrant disregard of the right to a defense,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of the Human Rights Watch organization.
Even as those executions were carried out, Cuban authorities arrested four men who were allegedly planning to hijack a private plane to the U.S. In Havana, chief American diplomat James Cason responded by warning that hijackers who reached the U.S. mainland would be arrested, tried and kicked out of the United States after serving long federal prison sentences. Cuba promptly accused Cason of fomenting dissent among government opponents. That’s how dictatorships conduct diplomatic dialogue.
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Over the past month or so, the Cuban government has rounded up and jailed nearly 80 prominent dissidents, including human rights activists, trade union leaders and independent journalists, many of them associated with the Varela Project, a pro-democracy petition drive praised by ex-President Carter last summer. Project organizers have garnered more than 11,000 signatures in support of free speech, free association and free enterprise — three radical and dangerous ideas in Castro’s police state.
“With exquisite timing, the Cuban representative to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva (chaired by Libya, by the way) last week condemned the ‘pious pontificating’ of Western leaders who proclaim themselves champions of human rights,” the Washington Post noted in an editorial, adding that an American official described Cuba’s crackdown as “the most extreme act of political repression in Latin America in a decade.” And so it was. For her part, veteran Latin America correspondent Georgie Anne Geyer explained that Castro is playing his usual game. “He creates images of liberalization and greater freedom in Cuba (as he did during Carter’s visit),” she wrote, “and then (he) suddenly swoops down and destroys them, his enemies having innocently revealed themselves to him.”
“Once again, Fidel is thumbing his nose at the world,” Ms. Geyer continued. “And once again, he is faced with an economy that grows sicker and more hopeless by the day….” The Miami Herald, which follows Castro closely, thinks Cuba’s strongman “is brewing a new confrontation with the United States. The U.S. needs to be prepared for another exodus from Cuba, pulled by the promise of freedom here and pushed by a dictator whose best interest may be well served by letting go dissidents who had become too vocal.” Of course that’s exactly what happened to Jimmy Carter when Castro unleashed the Mariel Boatlift — an operation that littered South Florida beaches with thousands of Cuban dissidents and criminals — during Carter’s unsuccessful 1980 reelection campaign.
According to University of Miami Cuba specialist Jaime Suchlicki, “The recent crackdown on dissidents in Cuba has more to do with Fidel Castro’s desire to leave a clean slate for the succession to power of his brother Raul than with U.S. policies toward … the island.”
“It should be clear by now that Castro despises opposition groups or any form of dissent,” Prof. Suchlicki added. “He tolerated them as part of his ‘charm offensive’ to obtain unilateral concessions from the U.S. government: tourism and credits.” There won’t be any concessions from the Bush administration, however, as long as my former boss, Amb. Otto J. Reich, a Cuban-American, remains in charge of Latin America and Cuba policy at the National Security Council.
The moral of this story is that we must be very cautious and skeptical when dealing with dictators who don’t play by widely accepted international rules and codes of conduct. Just look at how Saddam Hussein conducted his side of the war in Iraq, parading coalition prisoners before TV cameras, hiding weapons in schools and mosques, and using innocent civilians as human shields. And as for Fidel Castro, I agree with the Washington Post: “This is not the moment for the U.S. government to drop the ball, ease the pressure or allow Cuba to pretend that the country’s problems are anything but self-inflicted.” Well said!
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.