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Cuban Government Crackdown Quiets but Doesn't Silence Discontent

Hijackings and activism have been suppressed in the wake of harsh measures. The regime says the threat from an aggressive United States provoked the draconian policies.

June 27, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

HAVANA — There have been no hijackings in the nearly three months since the government of President Fidel Castro executed three young men who seized a passenger ferry in a bid to flee Cuba.

Likewise, the roundup of 75 opposition leaders, journalists and human rights activists in March has halted public protests and a signature campaign for the so-called Varela Project, which seeks a referendum on allowing private business and free elections.

But the success of the harshest crackdown on dissent in a generation is a relative matter. While Communist Party and government authorities pride themselves on containing dissent, the discontented continue to denounce the leadership, although in more cautious terms.

"Ninety percent of Cubans want to leave. There's no chance for a decent life here," said 26-year-old Ulisses, a textile worker who was hanging out with other underemployed young people in Old Havana. Ulisses predicted that the 76-year-old Castro would live another decade, and that it would take 20 years before Cuba would be reformed enough for an industrious worker to make a respectable living.

Along the Malecon seawall that is a favorite strolling place for those trying to escape the heat and humidity of central Havana, silent dissidents approach foreign visitors.

"Cuba is only a good place for the revolutionaries, not for the Cuban people," said Joel, a 32-year-old cigar factory worker whose brother was planning a weekend attempt to reach Florida in a motorized fishing boat.

Even some Cubans loyal to the aims of the Communist revolution were angered by the execution in April of three hijackers whose attempt to commandeer a passenger ferry to Florida had ended without injury.

"They were so young. I grieve for their mothers. They were only trying to leave a difficult situation, which many have done for years," said a retired woman in Parque Central, a spot renowned for candid debates among friends or strangers, a practice that has changed little despite the opposition crackdown. Although generally supportive of the government, she didn't want to give even her first name.

At Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Relations, there are few apologies for the crackdown on dissidents. In trials that lasted less than a day, they were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 28 years.

Neither, foreign ministry officials say, do they regret the executions, although they acknowledge that many Cubans were upset by the first application of the death penalty in three years. They accuse the Bush administration of provoking the harsh measures by enticing malcontents into treasonous behavior that threatened the very survival of Cuba.

"Why did Cuba react this way? Because Cuba was being attacked. Cuba was being destroyed. All these hijackings happened according to a plan," said Luis Fernandez, a specialist with the Foreign Ministry's U.S. affairs department. He lamented that the government believed it had to resort to executions. There were seven hijackings in as many months through March, but the piracy stopped after the executions, he said.

If not for the executions, the suppression of dissent probably would have stirred little public passion. Castro has long contained organized opposition by labeling it the product of American diplomats, spies and enemies of the revolution.

Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque made a splashy presentation to journalists at Revolution Square this week of a book by two Cuban intelligence agents who said they infiltrated the dissident movement. He cast the paperback volume as evidence that the entire notion of counterrevolutionary thinking is "a U.S. fabrication."

The book, titled "The Dissidents," contains photographs of leading government critics such as economist Marta Beatriz Roque and poet Raul Rivera meeting with diplomats from the U.S. Interests Section for workshops on human rights advocacy and political organization. The book tries to reinforce official claims that the dissidents were in the employ of the U.S. officials.

Castro still can count on millions of Cubans to express their support. Three million people put their names on a petition opposing the Varela Project, the government says.

But even those who ardently support Castro are struggling economically. Average monthly pay is less than $10, and most families depend on remittances from relatives abroad. Cubans receive a subsidized food ration consisting mostly of rice and bread, but the staples are insufficient to last until the next monthly distribution.

To keep grumbling stomachs from feeding disenchantment, authorities have rallied the nation to resist what they allege is an imminent U.S. invasion. Newspapers are full of stories about U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, civil defense advice for Cubans and reminders of past U.S. transgressions, including a memorial next month on the 50th anniversary of the execution of accused American Communist spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

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