- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2003

However you measure the remaining life of the Fidel Castro regime in Cuba, it has clearly passed from autumn to a bleak mid-winter. A month ago, three young Cubans died by firing squad for attempting to escape that imprisoned island. Their summary trials were closed even to their own families, who were refused permission to visit them in prison before they died.

A few days before these young men were executed, Mr. Castro imprisoned more than 75 of their fellow countrymen for reading and lending forbidden books by Dr. Martin Luther King, Czech human rights champion Vaclav Havel, and Cuba’s independence hero, Jose Marti. Mr. Castro claimed his regime sentenced these Cubans to prison terms ranging from 12 to 28 years for sending reports of human-rights abuses to the outside world, and for meeting with U.S. diplomats, but the reality is that they were seeking only their fundamental rights. Clearly, Fidel Castro, in his twilight years, in the winter of his discontent, violently lashes out at all those who repudiate his failed utopia.

The Department of State Human Rights Report for 2002 provides the chilling reminder that Cuban government repression is not new. As the U.S. secretary of state said at a briefing last month: “With respect to Cuba, it has always had a horrible human rights record. And rather than improving as we go into the 21st century, it’s getting worse.”

President George Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other administration officials are currently reviewing all the ways in which the U.S. government can further advance the president’s Initiative for a New Cuba, which he announced last year. The president said on May 20, 2002: “Our plan is to accelerate freedom’s progress in Cuba in every way possible, just as the United States and our democratic friends and allies did successfully in places like Poland, or in South Africa….”

Predictably, Mr. Castro opposes any steps toward freedom and democracy, and he blames the United States for “provoking” his own atrocities. He has recently singled out James Cason, the head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana for meeting openly with peaceful Cuban human-rights activists and independent librarians and journalists.

Mr. Castro also blames the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), because we and our grantees, in support of U.S. policy goals, have provided the Cuban people over the past six years with more than 1.7 million books, newsletters and video cassettes on issues related to democracy, human rights and free enterprise. Mr. Castro denounces USAID for providing more than 10,000 shortwave radios to the Cuban people so they can listen, if they wish, to the Voice of America, Radio Marti, the BBC, Radio Netherlands and other uncensored international broadcasts. Mr. Castro condemns USAID because our grantees have distributed more than 120,000 pounds of food and medicine to the families of political prisoners in Cuba and to other victims of Mr. Castro’s repression.

USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios has pledged that USAID will continue to expand this work as part of the overall U.S. effort to promote a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba. In doing so, we follow a proud American tradition of full, uncompromising, support for democracy and human rights around the world.

During the darkest days of the Soviet empire, the United States provided hope and encouragement to captive Soviet populations through systematic efforts to increase the flow of accurate information on democracy, human rights and free enterprise. Human rights activists in those countries — whether Polish, Hungarian, Czech, Romanian, Russian or of other nationalities — received books, newspapers, shortwave radios, and other assistance to help them communicate with one another and with the outside world.

USAID is well prepared to heed the president’s call to promote democracy in Cuba as we helped to around the world. Mr. Castro should be well aware that our commitment to help the Cuban people achieve democracy and freedom will not falter and will not cease. Cuba will be free.

Adolfo A. Franco is the assistant administrator for the Latin American and Caribbean Bureau at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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