- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

The Cuban government has begun what State Department officials yesterday called the most significant repression of its political opposition in seven years.
Dozens of Cuban opposition leaders have been arrested in the past few days. The campaign is also targeting senior U.S. diplomats, who are being singled out by name on nightly government television broadcasts and accused of illegal activities.
The Cuban government, which has stepped up its harassment of U.S. diplomats in recent months, said in a statement read on state television Tuesday that the chief of Washington's diplomatic mission in Havana, James Cason, was trying "to foment the internal counterrevolution."
"No nation, no matter how powerful, has the right to organize, finance and serve as a center for subverting the constitutional order," the statement said.
Mr. Cason has angered Cuban leaders by meeting dissidents and publicly supporting the opposition, said the Cuban Interests Section yesterday.
"The last provocation on February 24th was made by the chief, James Cason, who carried out insulting declarations against the Cuban people and the Cuban government, without precedent in the history of that office. He has continued with this unacceptable and provocative behavior in recent days," Juan Hernandez, spokesman for the Cuban government in Washington, said yesterday.
Mr. Cason, during a meeting last month with the opposition, told reporters: "The Cuban government is afraid afraid of freedom of conscience, afraid of freedom of expression, afraid of human rights."
The State Department denounced the recent arrests yesterday.
"This is an appalling act of intimidation against those who seek freedom and democratic change in Cuba," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "These people have been arrested simply for speaking out, one of the basic and most recognized international human rights."
The State Department said Mr. Cason had logged about 6,200 miles visiting with numerous dissidents, independent libraries, foreign journalists and ordinary Cubans since arriving in Havana in September but that he had done nothing improper.
Because of new Cuban restrictions, U.S. diplomats must now ask permission to travel outside Havana. The timing of the arrests are not thought to be related to the impending war with Iraq.
"We note that these events coincide with the opening in Geneva of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, of which Cuba is a member," said Mr. Boucher. "We call on the commission to condemn this action in the strongest terms. Cuba has again demonstrated that it is not fit to sit on this commission."
The annual six-week United Nations Human Rights Commission opened in Geneva this week.
Libya, a nation known for using torture, secret trials and summary executions to crush dissent, is chairing the commission this year.
A State Department official said yesterday that the current crackdown in Cuba was reminiscent of the 1996 "purge" in which the Cuban government arrested and jailed hundreds of opposition leaders and destroyed Concilio Cubano, an umbrella of Cuban opposition groups.
That campaign culminated with the Feb. 24, 1996, shooting down of two airplanes operated by the Miami-based Cuban exile group, Brothers to the Rescue.
Cuba is facing similarly organized opposition today. Last year, dissident Oswaldo Paya directed the Varela Project, a petition drive that collected more than 10,000 signatures calling for free elections and other democratic reforms. Named for a 19th-century priest who fought for Cuban independence, the campaign won international acclaim.
The project was unknown to most Cubans until former President Jimmy Carter mentioned it in a televised address to the Cuban people.
Mr. Paya won several international human rights awards and has been nominated for this year's Nobel Peace Prize.
In late February, Cuba's Catholic Church issued a statement on the 150th anniversary of the Rev. Felix Varela's death, criticizing Cuban communism.

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