MIAMI — The most severe crackdown on Cuban dissidents in years, a spate of hijackings and a souring economy have veteran island watchers asking whether U.S.-Cuban relations are headed for another crisis, including a mass exodus of refugees to South Florida.
In the view of some observers, Cuban President Fidel Castro has deftly seized the moment when the Bush administration is busy trying to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to strike hard at his own foes.
"I think Fidel for a number of months has been bothered by dissidents. He was ready to crush them or get rid of them. He is now using Iraq to do this," said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuba and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami.
Suchlicki predicted there will also be purges in the Cuban leadership to remove any opposition to Castro's eventual succession by his brother Raul, the armed-forces chief who is three years Fidel's junior.
Other U.S.-based observers, however, said Castro might be acting to warn Americans to stay out of Cuba's domestic affairs. For some, the confluence of political and economic news coming from the island has begun to seem eerily akin to past years, such as 1979-80 and 1993-94, when Castro allowed tens of thousands of his countrymen to leave for Miami as an apparent safety valve for continuing Cuba's one-man rule, established in 1959.
"The climate is more stifling than it was before," said Lisandro Perez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. "Then people start taking more desperate measures to leave. This is a script we have read before. Sooner or later, Castro says 'everybody can leave,' and we are in the same cycle again. It's all linked."
On Friday, more Cuban dissidents went on trial in three Havana courthouses, where police were stationed to keep out foreign media and diplomats. The first of the 80 defendants had been put on trial Thursday. At least a dozen face the possibility of life in prison.
Human rights activists told reporters that those people hauled into court included Raul Rivero, a poet and independent journalist, and Ricardo Gonzalez, founder of an independent magazine. The Inter-American Press Assn., an independent and hemisphere-wide professional organization, said 28 independent Cuban journalists were among those indicted and subject to "indiscriminate persecution."
"We ask all our members and supporters to help us spread this message of solidarity with the Cuban journalists in one of the darkest hours that freedom of expression has lived in the Americas," said IAPA President Andres Garcia of the Mexican publication Novedades de Quintana Roo.
Cuban officials have accused the dissidents of acting in cahoots with U.S. diplomats to subvert the island's government. Over a five-day period in late March, Cuban authorities arrested leaders of opposition political parties, independent labor unionists and writers and activists involved in a pro-democracy movement known as the Varela Project.
"While the rest of the hemisphere has moved toward greater freedom, the anachronistic Cuban government appears to be retreating into Stalinism," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said in Washington.
"Peaceful men and women are being tried summarily and are living in a climate of terror," said Jannet Rivero, vice president of the Cuban Democratic Directorate, a Miami-based exile political group. The group said it sent two of its officers to Geneva to inform the U.N. Human Rights Commission of the crackdown.
Disagreeing with Suchlicki's view on the crackdown, former American diplomat Wayne S. Smith hypothesized that the arrests and summary trials of Castro's opponents were a reaction -- or an "overreaction," as he was quick to call it -- to the tougher line on Cuba pursued by the Bush White House and James Cason, its top envoy in Havana.
"Look, this was provoked by the actions of the chief of the U.S. Interests Section, Jim Cason, going out and holding meetings with dissidents all over the island, passing out equipment -- radios and, I understand, mimeograph machines -- and holding press conferences after the meetings," said Smith, who was chief of the interests section from1979 to 1982.
"This begins to look to the Cubans like subversion," said Smith, a senior fellow at a Washington think tank called the Center for International Policy. "And, in fact, the stated goal of the Bush administration for Cuba is regime change."
A rash of hijackings has also focused international attention on conditions in Cuba, though analysts disagree about what part the deteriorating state-run economy or the toughest treatment meted out to dissenters in at least five years may have played in triggering them. Since March 19, two Cuban airliners have been successfully commandeered and forced to fly to Key West. And on Tuesday, armed men reportedly took over a passenger ferry in Havana and tried to sail it to Miami before running out of fuel.