Castro's latest crackdown

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By John Metzler

Friday, May 9, 2003

UNITED NATIONS — It’s richly ironic that just after a major roundup of political dissidents by Castro’s communists, that Cuba was elected to a new term on the UN’s Commission on Human Rights. So while 75 leading opposition figures were being arrested in Havana, on the pleasant shores of Lake Leman in Geneva, Cuba was chosen among others to sit in pious judgment on human rights issues. Truth of course is stranger than fiction.

During the height of the Iraq war media coverage, Castro took the opportunity to clean up some unfinished business — doing his dirty work against dissidents while Washington wasn’t watching so carefully. Crackdowns on democratic opposition is not novel in Cuba, nor are increasingly novel escapes from the palm fringed gulag. Yet, Castro certainly feels the heat that with political confreres such as Saddam Hussein toppled from power literally and figuratively, that the cult of the Cuban caudillo could be wearing a bit thin. Though Castro appears firmly in charge, his people know there’s an outside world, even beyond Florida.

Radio broadcasts from the USA such as the informative and focused programming from Radio Marti, brings the news into Cuban homes not only of freedom in the U.S., but increasingly so in most of Latin America. The day of the Latin American stereotypical dictators — the Comandante as Fidel fancies himself, is not a growth industry except in places like Venezuela. There too Castro’s comrade Chavez in Caracas is under assault from a still powerful political opposition.

Naturally Castro knows how to deal with dissidents — shoot them, arrest them, or export them! Still the island has enough contact with the outside through European and Canadian tourism and commerce that it’s hardly the sealed information vacuum many assume.

And while Washington ponders whether lifting, modifying or tinkering with the U.S. trade embargo dating from the days of the Kennedy Administration, it’s a sadly established truism that the embargo helps Castro and his cronies and much as tight sanctions aided the financial coffers of Saddam and his sorted thugs in Iraq. Basic economics — create a shortage and the black market will fill it.

In the past few years, Castro has ironically been less of the old bete noire in Washington; Congress allowed some trade and humanitarian loopholes for the increasingly impoverished Caribbean island. Last year $138 million in American farm exports went to Cuba. The policy, even unofficially endorsed by many powerful Cuban-American political groups, was to allow a kind of de facto coexistence with Cuba — despite Castro.

And while any relaxation of the embargo would seemingly support Havana’s communist regime, in fact Castro probably fears that genuinely open doors for trade and American tourism which could work in reverse. Moreover through shortages, the government can exert control by keeping its people on a tight political tether and focused on material necessities and not political goals.

Ironically the recent arrests — with 20 year prison terms for the democratic opposition — refocus the issue and could actually be part of a plan by Castro not only to control dissent but to equally enrage the Bush Administration into keeping a tight embargo.

There’s the perpetual debate in Washington what to do about Castro. The State Department has again put Cuba on the list of countries sponsoring terrorist movements from guerrillas in Colombia, to Basque terrorists in Spain, as well as American fugitives from the FBI.

Castro’s recent political crackdown has earned bi-partisan political opprobrium in Congress and clear criticism from the European Union and human rights groups. But given the fast approaching U.S. Presidential election cycle, let’s be realistic and not let our rhetoric get ahead of what we can realistically do in Cuba.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for World

Friday, May 9, 2002

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