Dissidents in Cuba
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Cuba sharpens dissident crackdown

Cuba sharpens dissident crackdown
Critics of Castro’s rule say that efforts to silence them have
increased, including the use of angry mobs

By Gary Marx
Tribune foreign correspondent

March 17, 2006

SANTA CLARA, Cuba — Three years after the harshest crackdown on dissent
in decades, human-rights conditions in Cuba have deteriorated as
authorities intensify a campaign to disrupt and intimidate the island’s
small opposition movement, according to dissidents, diplomats and
political analysts.

Elizardo Sanchez, an opposition activist who heads the Havana-based
Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said the
number of political prisoners in Cuba increased from 306 in early 2005
to 333 in early 2006.

Sanchez said that about 100 pro-government crowd actions, known in Cuba
as “acts of repudiation,” and other attacks have occurred against
opposition figures since July 2005.

“The situation with civil and political rights has worsened in the past
three years,” said Sanchez. “And what’s most worrying for us is that it
seems the situation is going to get even worse.”

Last week, a U.S. State Department report and UN expert Christine Chanet
each criticized the human-rights situation in Cuba. Chanet also said
tightened U.S. sanctions have created “extreme tension” between the two
nations “which is far from conducive to the development of freedom of
expression and freedom of assembly.”

Throwing out insults, eggs

One of the activists targeted by pro-government groups is Noelia
Pedraza, who was participating in a vigil in September for political
prisoners when, she said, an angry crowd cut the lights to her
apartment, shouted insults and threw rocks and eggs.

“Down with the worm!” a leader of the pro-government rally bellowed
through a loudspeaker at Pedraza, using the derisive term used by Cuban
officialdom for dissidents.

Since then, Pedraza, a leader of a small opposition group in this city
165 miles east of Havana, said she has been detained by police and
assaulted by pro-government demonstrators while distributing
human-rights material in a park.

Today, the 38-year-old mother of three is recovering her strength after
ending a lengthy hunger strike last week during which she demanded that
Cuba end its attacks against opposition activists.

“I am in this fight because of the injustices–because I want change,”
Pedraza said recently.

But diplomats and experts say it is unlikely Cuban President Fidel
Castro will ease the pressure on opposition activists as the 79-year-old
leader tries to boost revolutionary fever and tighten control to ensure
the government’s survival after his death.

Cuban officials defend the island’s human-rights record by saying they
provide universal education, health care and other services. They
portray the acts of repudiation as spontaneous outpourings of support
for a system they describe as the world’s most democratic and fair.

The attacks intensified after a speech by Castro last July in which he
denounced opposition activists as U.S. government lackeys and praised
supporters who two weeks earlier disrupted a dissident protest in Havana.

“The people, angrier than before over such shameless acts of treason,
intervened with patriotic fervor and didn’t allow a single mercenary to
move,” Castro said. “This is what will happen however many times as
necessary when traitors and mercenaries go a millimeter beyond the point
that our revolutionary people … are prepared to permit.”

But Sanchez and other activists say Cuban state security agents direct
the pro-government attacks, which often occur in front of the homes or
meeting places of dissidents, and participants include police dressed in
civilian clothes.

Sanchez said the aim of the attacks is to “increase the political
repression” without significantly increasing the number of political
prisoners.

“Why don’t they want to increase the number of political prisoners?” he
asked. “Because outside, in other countries, there has been a lot of
criticism.”

Opposition movement gutted

Cuba came under intense pressure from the United States, Europe and
international human-rights groups three years ago after imprisoning 75
opposition activists in the largest sweep in decades. Fifteen of the
prisoners were later released for medical reasons.

The sweep gutted Cuba’s tiny opposition movement that, nonetheless,
manages to survive even though it has been further weakened by
emigration, personal and ideological differences, and infiltration by
state security agents.

While prominent internationally, Cuba’s dissidents are virtually unknown
on the island, where the state-controlled media rarely mention their
names except to denounce them as agents of the U.S. government out to
topple Castro’s one-party government.

Many Cubans say they know little about “The Ladies in White,” a group of
wives, mothers and daughters of political prisoners who march silently
each Sunday through an upscale Havana neighborhood.

Hardly noticed is Santa Clara dissident Guillermo Farinas, a hunger
striker who is in the hospital where he is being fed intravenously. He
is demanding Cuba lift strict controls on Internet access for island
residents.

“Spiritually, I feel stronger than the government,” Farinas, 43, said
from his hospital bed two weeks ago. “We have to avoid a civil war. The
way to fight the government is peacefully.”

Farinas’ heath has deteriorated in recent days, with opposition
activists saying he is now in grave danger.

Some experts say Castro is freer to act against the opposition because
the government’s position has been strengthened by alliances with
Venezuela and China and the resurgence of the left across Latin America.

But Hans De Salas, a researcher at the University of Miami’s Institute
for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said the dissident crackdown is
part of a larger plan to “ensure the continuity of the regime after
Fidel Castro’s lifetime.”

In recent months, Castro has attacked widespread black-market activities
and corruption, while holding pro-government rallies and taking other
measures aimed at recapturing disaffected Cubans and discouraging
would-be reformers in the government.

“Fidel Castro is seeking to radicalize Cuban society,” De Salas said.

Castro supporters seem determined to defend the island’s socialist system.

“I am a communist and a revolutionary,” Maria Tomas, a 43-year-old state
worker, declared proudly as she stood in the doorway of her apartment in
the Havana neighborhood of Vedado.

In the past four months, Tomas has participated in three acts of
repudiation against Dolia Leal, a neighbor and dissident whose husband,
Nelson Aguiar, is one of the opposition activists imprisoned in 2003.

`Depressed and scared’

Leal
said Tomas joined a crowd outside her apartment shouting
“mercenary” and “traitor.” The group warned Leal to stop marching on
Sundays with “The Ladies in White” and, in late January, prevented
dissidents from gathering at her apartment.

“I am very depressed and scared,” said Leal, 61. “I am afraid they will
attack me physically. They told me they are going to take drastic
actions if I continue.”

Tomas denied the pro-government crowd was aggressive or threatened Leal
but said she would not be allowed to pursue her opposition activities.

“The people repudiate and reject whatever act that is against our
revolutionary principles,” she said. “We are going to continue doing
what we have to do.”

gmarx@tribune.com
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0603170152mar17,1,4477091.story?coll=chi-newsnationworld-hed

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