Provocation, war spawned Cuba crackdown

April 15, 2003|By Wayne S. Smith

BEFORE LAST month's deplorable crackdown on dissidents in Cuba, the situation there had seemed to be inching toward somewhat greater tolerance.

During his trip to Cuba in May 2002, for example, former President Jimmy Carter met with Cuban dissidents and in his televised speech to the nation spoke of the Varela Project, an initiative of theirs calling for greater political freedoms. And both before and after Mr. Carter's visit, many other Americans, myself included, regularly and openly met with the dissidents without any problem.

Oswaldo Paya, the principal architect of the Varela Project, was even permitted to come to the United States to receive the W. Averell Harriman Award from the National Democratic Institute. The Cuban government may not have liked what he had to say while abroad, but he wasn't punished for it upon his return home. Things did seem to be changing.

Why, then, the sudden arrest of dissidents? Is it, as some in the United States quickly posited, that Fidel Castro was simply hoping the rest of the world was so distracted by the war in Iraq that no one would notice or react?

Hardly. No one in his right mind (and whatever else he is, Mr. Castro is that) would have expected the arrest of more than 80 dissidents, many of them well-known international figures, to go unremarked. The Cubans expected a firestorm, and they got it.

No, the arrests came in part because the Bush administration provoked them by ordering James Cason, the chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, to begin a series of high-profile and provocative meetings with dissidents, even holding seminars in his own residence and passing out equipment of various kinds to them.

The administration knew that such "bull-in-the-china-shop" tactics would provoke a Cuban reaction -- hopefully an overreaction. Sure enough, given that the announced objective was to promote transition to a different form of government, the Cubans came to see the meetings as "subversive" and as deliberately provocative.

But it was not just the meetings that led to the Cuban overreaction, for such it certainly was. It was also the beginning of the war in Iraq. The Cubans saw this as a signal that the United States is determined to blow away anyone it doesn't like through the unilateral use of force.

And they remember that U.S. officials accused Cuba (without evidence, as it turned out) of having biological weapons and as representing a potential threat to the United States.

As one Cuban official put it to me recently: "This new pre-emptive strike policy of yours puts us in a new ballgame, and in that new game, we must make it clear that we can't be pushed around. Who knows? We may be next." It was this kind of mindset that led to the crackdown that turned into a massive overreaction.

The Cubans did exactly what the Bush administration had hoped they would do. Virtually the whole active dissident community has now been arrested and put on trial and many given extremely heavy sentences. Tragic. And now, even worse, comes the execution of three men who last week attempted to hijack a boat.

None of this will be easily erased. This is a blot that will impede any significant progress in U.S.-Cuban relations until there is some amelioration of conditions in Cuba.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, will certainly continue the pressures, and the provocations, so as to prevent any such amelioration.

It has been argued that Mr. Castro simply saw this as a propitious moment to halt dissent in Cuba, and there are doubtless some elements of truth to that. Mr. Castro has never liked any kind of criticism. Still, over the past few years, he had tolerated it.

All things being equal, he might have continued to do so. But the situation is no longer the same. It has changed, not just between the United States and Cuba, but internationally -- in ways that may complicate U.S. relations around the world.

Meanwhile, tensions between the United States and Cuba will almost certainly worsen.

Wayne S. Smith, an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University and the director of its Academic Exchange Program with Cuba, was third secretary at the U.S. Embassy in Havana from 1958 to 1961 and chief of the U.S. Interests Section there from 1979 until 1982.

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