Cuba rounds up dissidents, alleges conspiracy with U.S.

March 20, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MIAMI - In a move that further strains relations with the United States, Cuban authorities have arrested more than two dozen dissidents accused of subversion and conspiracy with American diplomats.

The roundup Tuesday, the biggest sweep of dissidents in recent years, mostly singled out independent journalists whose reports on politics and daily life have earned them the ire of Fidel Castro's government. A group of them had attended a journalism workshop last week at the home of James Cason, the chief U.S. diplomat in Havana. Human rights advocates said the authorities also searched homes and confiscated fax machines, typewriters and medicines.

"This is an appalling act of intimidation against those who seek freedom and democratic change in Cuba," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in a statement. "These people have been arrested for simply speaking out, one of the most basic internationally recognized human rights."

Cason has met often with the island's dissidents since arriving last summer, including recent gatherings not only at his official residence but also at the home of Marta Beatriz Roque, an economist and former political prisoner. The Cuban authorities had denounced those contacts as "repeated provocations" and warned that they could lead to closing the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. They had issued a similar warning last year when Cason's predecessor distributed short-wave radios to government opponents.

Relations were already strained from Cuba's anger over the imprisonment of five spies lionized as heroes by Havana. The Cuban government had recently placed restrictions on the movements of U.S. diplomats, requiring approval for trips outside Havana.

A statement published yesterday in Granma, the Communist Party newspaper in Cuba, accused those arrested of conspiring with enemies of the state, including members of the Bush administration who are opposed to any easing of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. In recent years, U.S. business groups have sold food and medicines to Cuba, while a steady stream of American legislators called for normalization of relations.

The statement likened the dissidents to traitors and mercenaries who supported a "criminal policy" to continue the embargo. A 1999 law provides prison terms of up to 20 years for Cubans who support the sanctions.

Diplomats said major opposition figures were not arrested, including Oswaldo Paya, who has won numerous human rights awards for seeking democratic reforms. One diplomat said the crackdown appeared to be aimed at midlevel activists in order to disrupt opposition projects.

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