Propaganda war continues


Cuba: Ballet performances by schoolchildren deliver political messages to visitors from U.S. sister cities.

April 14, 2003|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

MATANZAS, Cuba -- At a Matanzas school for the arts, teen-agers perform a ballet in tribute to the "Cuban Five," men convicted in Miami of espionage in 2001 and imprisoned in separate penitentiaries across the United States.

A quintet of boys in red T-shirts featuring images of "los cinco patriotas cubanos" take center stage in a dance symbolizing the prisoners' unhappy predicament. Girls in tutus and toe shoes move languorously around them to showcase their love and sense of loss.

There will be no reference to the crackdown that occurred shortly before the graceful dancers took the stage. Seventy-eight dissidents, including a poet, opposition political party leader, librarians, journalists and activists, were locked up last week for their opposition to President Fidel Castro's 44-year-old regime and were being tried in a closed Havana courtroom. Some have been sentenced to 15 to 27 years in prison.

The children, many of whom have come to the school from around the island nation to study art, music and dance, have another agenda. "We are sure that with the help of people like you it will be possible for the men to walk on our streets again," translates an administrator, after a tiny girl wearing wire-rimmed glasses reads the text about the Cubans imprisoned in America in dramatic Spanish.

In the decades-old propaganda war between Cuba and the United States, this artistic skirmish was designed to win over 30 guests, visiting members of the U.S.-Cuba Sister Cities Association from Baltimore, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, who have come to forge "people-to-people" ties with the nation.

Many of these visitors are effusive in their praise for Cuba's system, but they receive little information about the crackdown and will remain largely oblivious to it throughout their stay.

A passing reference came earlier in the week in Havana, when Ricardo Alarcon, president of the National Assembly, charged in an agitated address to 100 sister-city participants that the United States pays dissidents to "undermine our people from within," using the U.S. Interests Section in Havana as a conduit. He offered no details.

As the United States further curtails travel to Cuba and visas for Cubans, and the trade embargo imposed in 1960 continues to deprive the nation of 11 million of needed goods, that silence speaks volumes to Cuba watchers.

It is likely, they say, that Cuba's leaders are thinking the United States might target them once it takes care of Iraq.

Writing in a South Florida newspaper, Wayne S. Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, blamed the crackdown within Cuba on "the hardening attitudes and more aggressive tactics on the part of the Bush administration."

Smith and others had been hoping that if the U.S. Justice Department eased up on the Cuban Five, Cuba would reconsider its treatment of dissidents. Recently, however, the five prisoners were removed from a month of solitary confinement and their rights to consular visits were restored, but the wave of repression in Cuba persisted.

Then, on Friday, Cuba announced it had executed three ferry hijackers after a summary trial. The hijackers were trying to get to the United States.

"I think the actions they've taken against the dissidents go far beyond their concerns over the Five," says Smith, a former chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. "One thing that keeps coming up over and over is [the U.S.] policy of preemptive strikes."

Because Cuba is sometimes mentioned as part of the axis of evil, its leaders feel they can't afford what they see as dissidents being controlled by the American mission in Cuba, Smith says.

The current head of the American mission in Cuba, James Cason, has actively supported dissident efforts. While Cuban leaders didn't have to feel threatened by the opposition, infiltrated as it was by state security, concerns about "what the United States may do are real," Smith says.

Speaking to the American visitors, whom he later treated to a lavish reception, Alarcon concentrated on the Five. Miami's vehemently anti-Castro exile community played a major role in railroading them, he says, representing, "the essence of the drama that affects the nature of our bilateral relations."

In 1998, the men were arrested for infiltrating Miami exile groups whom they said were planning attacks against Cuba and for attempting to obtain military secrets. A supportive Web site contends, "the FBI targeted the five Cubans instead of arresting the terrorists." They were tried in Miami and received sentences ranging from 17 years to life.

Throughout Havana and Matanzas, a faded port city to the east, the Cuban Five have replaced Elian Gonzales as an emblem of American hostility and the exile community's political pull. Billboards and posters proclaim their heroism and demand their return.

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