Kelly Sans Culotte


Cuba: Last Gasp?
Or same old song and dance?
By Toby Eglund

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APRIL 18, 2003. So much for the new, slightly open Cuba. The Castro regime has begun cracking down on everything in sight, from houses bought without government permits to any kind of dissent. Justifying itself with the imperial Yankee menace beating its chest in Iraq, and goaded on by U.S. diplomatic taunts, it seems like both sides are itching for one last tango.

Cuba Cracked
Since March 18, the Cuban state has arrested some 75 human rights and pro-democracy activists, and sentenced them in swift, secret trials with terms of up to 28 years in prison for allegedly taking money from U.S. officials or conspiring with them.

The ministries of economy and tourism, among others, have reportedly been purged of young technocrats responsible for bringing in foreign capital. Friday, the government summarily executed three men who, a week ago, had hijacked a Havana bay ferry in a failed attempt to reach Florida.

The Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese writer, José Saramago, a personal friend of Fidel Castro and one of his most vociferous supporters in Europe, broke with the regime Monday, after the executions. "This is as far as I go," the longtime Communist wrote in Spain's leading newspaper, El País.

Fuel on the Fire
The Bush administration seemed determined to throw fuel on the fire leading to the arrests. Warnings from U.S. officials that Cuban hijackers would be severely punished were undercut by the sight of Cubans quietly freed on bail after hijacking airliners to Florida in the past months.

In an apparently calculated breach of diplomatic protocol, James Cason, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, held a variety of high-profile, inflammatory meetings with local dissidents, some in his own residence. Many were among those arrested.

Some of Cason's guests turned out to be State Security agents who had infiltrated the dissident groups. Aleida Godínez Soler, a secretary to now imprisoned activist, Marta Beatriz Roque, was so trusted by the Americans that she was allowed to use the Interest Section's own computers.

Opportunistic Housecleaning?
Wayne S. Smith, who opened the U.S. Interests Section in Havana in 1979 during the Carter administration, and headed it until 1982, thinks that the arrests and executions in Cuba are not a kind of opportunistic housecleaning undertaken while all eyes are on Iraq.

"The Cubans did exactly what the Bush administration had hoped they would do," they overreacted to Cason's meeting, and to the war in Iraq, Smith wrote this Monday in the Baltimore Sun. Smith is pessimistic about the immediate future: "Tensions between the United States and Cuba will almost certainly worsen."

Other analysts have read the crackdown as an attempt by the aging dictator to preserve his legacy for his younger brother, Armed Forces chief and handpicked successor, Raúl Castro.

After all, the decades-old status quo of embargo and vitriol has been the key to success for hardline positions on both sides of the Florida straits. Castrophobia has long been the raison d'etre of many Republican-voting Cuban exiles. The omnipresent bugaboo of American intervention, bolstered by the embargo, has historically aided Fidel Castro in marshaling support at home and abroad.

Changing Times
Before the crackdown, U.S. agricultural concerns had been effective in getting trade restrictions watered down as they pressed for an end to the embargo.

The Cuban American community itself had been shifting from advocating a violent overthrow of the Castro regime, including U.S. military intervention, to understanding that this only weakened the small, but growing democracy movement in Cuba. Even the formerly hardline Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) had expressed a new openness to dialogue with Cuba.

On the island, the Varela Project, a petition seeking nonviolent reforms in the Communist state, was ignored by the government when it was presented last year, but remarkably more than 11,000 Cubans were willing to go on the record as supporting change. This would have been unimaginable only a decade ago.

Death Throes
Even if the Iraq war and renewed U.S. imperialist ambitions may have triggered it, the current crackdown in Cuba also reflects an ongoing battle within the regime itself, between those who want a "Chinese style" liberalization, and those bent on reinstating Stalinist social and economic control.

The Iraq war may have simply created an opening for the latter faction, which includes the hoary likes of José Ramón Machado Ventura, a member of the ruling Communist Party Politburo and a Vice President of the Council of State, as well as the recently rehabilitated Ramiro Valdés Menéndez, a former, much feared, Minister of the Interior. Both are determined to recreate Cuba circa 1972 and fossilize it there after Castro's death.

The only question: Can it be done? In a nation where it is literally impossible to live on a peso salary, and the jobs paying dollars are not enough to go around, almost every Cuban has become accustomed to engaging in small acts of dollar-getting civil disobedience merely to eat.

Consider who was arrested: independent journalists, and activists trying to organize free trade unions, a network of underground libraries, and the Varela project, among others. Their very existence means at least some Cubans have a growing idea of what they want, and it is probably not less freedom.

The Crystal Ball
Increasingly, the response of the average Cuban to any government action is cynicism. That is as likely to turn into anger as it is to fear when the crackdown starts biting into their incomes. Cubans well remember the desperate poverty of the so-called Special Period, after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990's.

It was only the gradual opening of the economy and an influx of European money that helped them emerge from the post-Soviet hole. Today European tourism is one of Cuba's biggest industries. It's hard to imagine how Cubans will eat without it.

Nevertheless, according to one European Union diplomat, the arrests almost seemed calculated as "a terrible slap in the face." They began only three days after the European Union opened an embassy in Havana. Now, the imminent EU trade agreement to benefit developing nations will almost assuredly not include Cuba.

Help At Hand
Latin American nations may not step in to help the regime either. On Thursday morning, the United Nations Human Rights Commission passed a resolution mildly rebuking Cuba. Presented by Uruguay, Peru and Nicaragua, it urged Havana to allow a representative of the UN high commissioner for human rights to visit Cuba and prepare a report. A stronger amendment presented by Costa Rica, which specifically mentioned the current wave of repression, was rejected.

In the midst of U.S. triumphalism, the fact that a resolution, any resolution, criticizing Cuba was approved is a sign of how much international support the Castro government has lost in the past few weeks.

Traditional friends were repulsed by the hasty executions. Mexico denounced the arrests and executions, but wavered over an official censure. President Eduardo Duhalde of Argentina announced Tuesday that Buenos Aires would abstain from supporting the resolution against "a small, blockaded country." It comes, he said, " an inopportune time, taking into account the unilateral war [in Iraq] which violates human rights." However, abstentions, like Argentina's and Brazil's, are no votes of support.

End Game
Abroad, Cuba's status as scrappy David up against the Yankee Goliath is no longer enough to justify human rights abuses like the arrests of journalists and executions of hijackers who did not injure anyone. Internally, Cubans may well get fed up with not being fed at all.

Buildings are crumbling around their ears. Many of the social advances they were willing to sacrifice themselves for, like universal education and health care, are also disintegrating as doctors and teachers have been forced by the new dollar economy to abandon their professions and drive cabs and clean hotel rooms.

In Cuba, as elsewhere, the evolutionary dictum still holds true: change or die.

From the Web

Baltimore Sun: Provocation, war spawned Cuba crackdown
Granma: Terrorist plot to destabilize Cuba
Miami New Times: Caught between Iraq and a hard-line place

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