Silence the messenger

April 09, 2003

FIDEL CASTRO'S government has launched a lightning-swift assault aimed at undercutting American influence among dissidents on the impoverished island.

Cuban courts this week began sentencing dozens of independent journalists, librarians and advocates for democratic reform to as much as 27 years in prison, after a flurry of arrests and hasty, closed-door proceedings. Many face recommendations of life sentences in these sham trials, which Cuba's state-controlled press isn't covering.

Close to 80 people have been arrested since March 18: writers who supplied news to the exile community in Miami; book lovers who dared share their private collections with other independent thinkers; protesters; opposition party leaders and activists; economists critical of Castro policies that are depleting the island of resources and hope.

"This is so arbitrary for a man whose only crime is to write what he thinks," said Blanca Reyes, the wife of one of the island's best-known poets and journalists, Raul Rivero, 57, who was sentenced Monday to 20 years in prison. "What they found on him was a tape recorder, not a grenade."

Many also had kept the wrong company: Testifying in some of the cases were state security agents, who had posed as activists at dinner parties for opposition figures held in the home of diplomat James Cason, chief of mission of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, reported an NBC producer there.

After a recent spate of hijackings by Cubans seeking freedom in the United States, Mr. Castro threatened to shut down the U.S. Interests Section and pledged a crackdown on dissidents. Speaking this week in Miami, Mr. Cason called the arrests and convictions "coldly calculated to take place while the world's attention was focused elsewhere."

That's cowardly, not covert, and only confirms the growing reach of opposition within Cuba to Mr. Castro's doomed leadership. But indeed, though many here and worldwide have condemned the repression and called for the U.N. Human Rights Commission to censure Cuba, as it has before, when it meets in Geneva later this month, the cries of outrage are all but overshadowed by the war in Baghdad.

One press freedom advocate aptly termed Mr. Castro's sneak attack on human rights "collateral damage" of the second gulf war.

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