- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2000

Cuba is using the furor over 6-year-old shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez to mask the worst wave of state intimidation and harassment of pro-democracy activists in Cuba in years, a senior State Department official said yesterday.
The State Department will highlight the past year's heightened repression of opponents to President Fidel Castro's rule when it issues its annual report on human rights Friday.
"Any crackdown is bad, but this certainly is one of the worst we've seen," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"Fidel cracks down when he feels vulnerable… . The growing number of dissidents and independent journalists on the island indicates a growing level of dissatisfaction with the regime."
The Cuban government has organized mass protests to demand the return to Cuba of Elian, who has been staying with relatives in Miami since his rescue from an inner tube off the Florida coast in November.
A Miami court is to decide whether the courts or the Justice Department has jurisdiction to decide Elian's fate. A new judge was assigned yesterday to hear the case after the previous one was hospitalized with a stroke.
U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore is to begin hearing the case the week of March 6. Judge Moore was director of the U.S. Marshals Service in Washington when he was appointed to the federal bench by President Bush in 1992.
Although Elian's case will not be cited in the State Department's human rights report, the official said Mr. Castro "spotted an opportunity to divert public opinion on the island and abroad, and he ran with it."
"One thing you can say about Fidel Castro is that he is a savvy manipulator of public opinion," the official said.
The State Department is still compiling the list of arrests and detentions in Cuba before Friday's publication, but officials said the number to be cited in the report will be "in the hundreds."
Wayne Smith, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a former U.S. interests section chief in Havana, said detentions are up but that they must be seen in context.
"Fax machines are working, phones are not being cut, people are moving about freely," he said yesterday after returning from a visit to Cuba.
He said in January that he had attended a dinner in Havana honoring several dissidents.
There was a brief opening for anti-government activists in Cuba after the visit of Pope John Paul II in January 1998. But the government reversed itself after the international community condemned Cuba's human rights record at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva last April.
The Czech Republic and Poland, both of whose governments include former dissidents against communist rule, are expected to co-sponsor a similar resolution at the United Nations' human rights gathering in Geneva next month.
In November, just before Elian's mother drowned and the child was plucked from the sea, Cuba's repression became harsher in scope and measure. Several heads of state, including Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, criticized Cuba and Mr. Castro at the Ibero-American Summit in Havana, another State Department official noted.
The scolding at what is now referred to in Havana as "the dissident's summit" was particularly galling for Mr. Castro because Mexico was the only Latin American nation never to break relations with Cuba since its revolution.
"[Mr. Castro] was embarrassed at the Ibero-American Summit. Mexico criticized him to his face. Rosario Green, Mexico's foreign minister, met with dissidents. Castro had to do something," the second State Department official said.
Both State Department officials said Cuba was using the Elian protests to divert attention.
"Thousands of children have left Cuba, and he never gave a damn about any of them. We find children floating on rafts every year, and he never said a word about any of them. But after the Ibero-American summit, he jumped right on the Elian bandwagon," one of the State Department officials said.
Mr. Smith agreed that the Elian case "certainly provided [Mr. Castro] with" an issue "to rally the people and generate enthusiasm."
But while much of the enthusiasm for Elian's return is contrived, Mr. Smith said, Cubans almost universally agree that the child should be returned.
The Miami Herald, quoting Cuba's best-known dissident and human rights monitor Elizardo Sanchez, said Cuba has detained 304 dissidents, has restricted the movements of 201 more since November and is holding 22 others for trial.
According to Mr. Sanchez, there have been 30 long-term arrests and 270 one- and two-day detentions.
"Our data makes this the worst wave of repression in 10 years," he told the Herald in a telephone interview from Havana late last week.
He said the government was employing new methods of repression, including detaining activists in secret state security houses rather than at police stations. Some have been taken to isolated fields outside Havana and threatened with execution before being left to walk back to town.
The Cuban government adamantly denies the charges, linking the accusations to the campaign to keep Elian in the United States.
"This is a slander campaign to distort the reality of our country," said Luis Fernandez, spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington yesterday. "Elizardo Sanchez and others have been saying this to journalists, trying to jeopardize the return of a little boy to his father and his country."

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