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Crackdown in Cuba

Led by Fidel Castro, Cuba has outraged the international human rights community by its recent jailing of dozens of well-known dissidents and its execution of three men for hijacking a ferry to Florida. Ray Suarez leads a discussion with two experts on the timing of the Cuban government's latest moves.

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  • RAY SUAREZ:

    For more than ten years, this woman pretended to be an opponent of Cuban President Fidel Castro's government.

  • ALEIDA DE LAS MERCEDES GODINEZ, Cuban Undercover Agent (Translated):

    And thank the loyal gesture the U.S. Government has had, who against the grain has lent us their home so we can hold this activity here.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Aleida de las Mercedes Godinez attended this meeting of Cuban dissidents held last month at the home of a U.S. diplomat. But she's actually an undercover spy for Castro's government. Godinez and other agents helped Castro's government round up 75 dissidents. They were convicted of being U.S.-backed mercenaries and sentenced last month to as many as 28 years in prison.

    In an interview this week, Godinez said the U.S. should not have sponsored the meetings with dissidents.

  • ALEIDA DE LAS MERCEDES GODINEZ (Translated):

    It is scandalous that a diplomat would lend his home for these types of subversive activities against the government that accredits him.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Among those jailed for subversive activities were independent journalists, economists and government critics from a group called the Varela Project. Some met with former President Jimmy Carter during his visit to Cuba last year.

    Cuba further shocked human rights organizations last week by executing three men by firing squad for hijacking a ferry to Florida. The passenger boat was commandeered in Havana Bay two weeks ago. It was the third hijacking this month by Cubans trying get to the United States. Cuba's foreign minister defended the executions, saying they would prevent further hijackings.

  • FELIPE PEREZ ROQUE, Foreign Minister, Cuba (Translated):

    (April 18) The death penalty is not in accord with our philosophy of life. It is but an ultimate resource that we only use in extreme need, a resource that we have used to defend a country that has been treated with hostility for over 40 years and still is.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    It's all added up to one of the toughest political crackdowns by Castro's government in years. In Washington last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Cuba has long had a horrible human rights record.

  • COIN POWELL:

    Rather than improving as we go into the 21st century, it's getting worse. I mean, when you look at what they have done in recent weeks and recent months with respect to stifling dissent, with respect to arresting people and sentencing them to long years in prison, in jail, just for expressing a point of view that is different from that of Fidel Castro, it should be an outrage to everyone. It should be an outrage to every leader in this hemisphere, every leader in this world.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Havana's moves also thwarted attempts in the U.S. Congress to ease or eliminate 40 years of trade sanctions against the communist island. Some in the Bush administration have even warned of tighter sanctions on Cuba, including greater restrictions on American travel, and sending money to family members there. The European Union, Cuba's largest trading and investment partner, condemned the Cuban actions, saying they could jeopardize a much-needed European aid package.

  • SPOKESPERSON:

    Ladies and gentlemen, Draft Resolution 82 is adopted.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    And last week, the 53-nation U.N. Human Rights Commission said they'd send an envoy to Cuba to probe human rights abuses. But the Cuban government said it would not cooperate.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    For more on the latest crackdown and the response by the U.S. and international community we get two views. Jose Miguel Vivanco is the executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. And Frank Calzon is the executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, a nonprofit group promoting a transition to democracy in Cuba.

    Frank Calzon, these groups appeared to have been operating openly, meeting and visiting the pope, seeing President Carter, even receiving supplies from various overseas interests. Why this crackdown? And why the severity of this crackdown?

  • FRANK CALZON:

    Well, the crackdown has to do with the fact that the Cubans believe what the pope said when he went to Cuba. The pope talked about not being afraid, and he said to the Cubans, "Have no fear."

    And they began to talk and they began to organize, and thousands of Cubans have signed a petition submitted to the Cuban national assembly asking for change. So it is true that the Cuban people is fearful. I think one would have to also say that the Cuban government is very much afraid of the Cuban people.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Jose Miguel Vivanco, these groups had, as Frank Calzon suggests, reached a certain amount of notoriety, they were well-known outside the country, and in it. Why was this done?

  • JOSE MIGUEL VIVANCO:

    Well, I mean these groups represent, in my view, the most serious threat to the government of Fidel Castro. It's a grass-roots movement across the country, and they were challenging the government to a political referendum on the future of democracy, I mean, trying to reach some democratic change in Cuba.

    And Fidel Castro certainly took advantage of the distraction of the whole world into Iraq, into, you know, looking at the Iraq War, to crack down, to sentence the leaders of the movement to long, long, you know, years in prison. This is the most serious setback in human rights in Cuba in many, many years.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Yet the best known, the best internationally known leaders of this movement were not targeted, like Oswar Palla (inaudible). Elizado Sanchez and others.

  • JOSE MIGUEL VIVANCO:

    I believe that… believe that for Castro to touch Sanchez or Palla, he would have to pay a huge price with the international community. But Raul Rivero, for instance, the most well known independent journalist and poet, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for just trying to write what he thinks.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Frank Calzon, the Cuban American National Foundation certainly no friend of the Castro government, its executive director, suggested today that what Castro is hoping is that the U.S. will overreact. What do you think?

  • FRANK CALZON:

    Well, I'm sure that there are people that would like the United States to behave in one way or the other. But I don't believe the administration is ready to do more in regard to Cuba than it has done in regard to Poland or the people in Chile under Pinochet or the people in South Africa.

    The administration ought to continue trying to break Castro's censorship by getting TV and radio signals into Cuba. I don't hear anyone really talking about overreacting here. Havana has overreacted. Havana has killed three black Cubans for simply trying to escape on a hijacked boat. During their crime, no one was injured, no one was wounded.

    Now the Cuban government wants to blame the United States also for these executions. I think Fidel is out of touch and even many of his friends, or people who are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere, have denounced the terrible things that are happening on the island right now.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    But in the recent past, hadn't there been a thaw with the opening of food shipments, of a growing movement inside the United States Congress to reexamine the embargo and other things?

  • FRANK CALZON:

    The thaw — might have been in some sort of opinion articles that sometimes appear in the United States. Three or four years ago, Castro allowed some private economic activity — the last year or so that has been cut down to about half. We're talking about being able to work as a barber or as a plumber.

    There has been an increased repression in Cuba. Cubans continue to suffer apartheid in Cuba, most Americans do not know. You know, you talk about a thaw, but Cubans are not allowed to enter hotels and beaches and restaurants and clinics that are set aside for tourists.

    So I'm not sure that there has been any major thing. What has happened is that the Cuban people have begun to demand openly and peacefully to be treated like human beings, like anybody else.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Will this bring on a revisit of American attitudes, this action taken by the Castro government?

  • JOSE MIGUEL VIVANCO:

    Hopefully. I think it's time to review the policy. The policy of isolation to where Fidel Castro is certainly not working and it's not very really likely to work when you have the rest of the world, Latin American democracies, Canada, Europe and the rest of, you know Africa and Asia.

    Every year at the United Nations they condemn this policy. What you need to do is to work together with the U.S., you know U.S. potential allies in Latin America, in Canada, in Europe, to exercise effective pressure in– against the government to force that government to take the right steps in terms of respecting human rights and democracy.

  • FRANK CALZON:

    With all due respect to my friend, Mr. Vivanco, the policy of pressure, the policy of trade, the Canadian efforts have come to nothing. The Europeans have tried that, and Castro has turned that down. Let's not forget that, if a policy of sanctions has failed, the policy of accommodation has also failed. Perhaps a time has come for both the United States and the Canadians and others to work out a different way of dealing with Cuba.

  • JOSE MIGUEL VIVANCO:

    I think it's important to understand that the option is not between an ineffective isolation policy, which is the policy of the U.S., which has ended up isolating the U.S. from the rest of the world, and not Cuba; or an unprincipled engagement with Cuba. There must be something in the middle, you know, targeted sanctions, not indiscriminate, you know, sanctions to the whole country. You need really to exercise pressure on that government, but essentially with a multilateral approach to force the government of President Castro to take the right steps in terms of, you know, releasing political prisoners tomorrow, not, you know, years from today.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    But what do you think President Castro is up to, Frank Calzon? He was on the verge of signing an international agreement with the E.U., which would have opened Cuba as a market along with various African and Caribbean countries. Now that looks like it's a very shaky possibility. This would seem to have done economic damage in the near term to Cuba, as much as anyone else's interest.

  • FRANK CALZON:

    That's true, but he doesn't really care about the economic damage of Cuba. The reason Cubans have shortages of apples is because they don't come from the United States. But the reason they don't have oranges or mangos is because of Castro's economic policy. He doesn't care about the economy. All his efforts have one target: To obtain credits from the United States. He would like to have the American taxpayer to subsidize him. And since President Bush has said that he's not going to allow that, he's only left with additional repression in Cuba.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    We shouldn't forget the… what's left of the dissident movement, Jose Miguel. Where does this leave them? No matter what the Cuban government, the American government and the E.U. do, where is the opposition now?

  • JOSE MIGUEL VIVANCO:

    The opposition, the dissidents, the independent journalists, human rights activists are very, very vulnerable and they are subject of intimidation, political repression, infiltration as the package showed.

    And so they really need the support of the international community. By themselves, they're not going to be able to bring some change in terms of, you know, progress in human rights, democratization in Cuba. That support should come from Latin America, from the U.S., from Canada and Europe.

    And only if we work together, and that is precisely the worst nightmare of Fidel Castro, if the rest of the world worked together, you know, with the same kind of approach, you know, and not just, you know, following a divisive policy of isolation and engagement on the other side, you know.

    So only if you can, you know, make a concerted effort to exercise pressure on that government, you will, you know, hopefully get some results very soon and the release of the political prisoners.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    And Frank Calzon, in your view, what's the best thing that friends of the Cuban opposition outside the country can do to help what's left inside the country?

  • FRANK CALZON:

    I think what they should do is what Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and many other groups have been doing, providing solidarity and support as it has been said, there are librarians in prison, there are doctors in prison, there are economists in prison, Marta Beatriz Roque, a very well known dissident, has been sentenced to a long prison sentence.

    What we need to do in regard to Cuba is not new; it's the same thing that the American people did to support freedom, again, in South Africa, in Chile, in Argentina, in Spain, in the communist world. And Cuba is only 90 miles away. Castro hopes that all these comments will disappear in a week or a month. We need to keep Cuba on the spotlight.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Frank Calzon, Jose Miguel Vivanco, thank you both.