- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

The Cuban government has “carried out its most significant act of political repression in decades,” arresting more than 100 people since mid-March as the world was focused on the war in Iraq, a State Department official told a House panel yesterday.”Dissidents were imprisoned for writing ‘counterrevolutionary articles,’ running independent libraries and belonging to ‘illegal’ groups of independent journalists,” J. Curtis Struble, acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told the House International Relations Committee.The Cubans faced “spurious charges” of subversion and treason, and 75 of them were sentenced to long prison sentences after secretive trials, said Lorne W. Craner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.Cuba’s actions have drawn outrage from many countries, the European Union and international human rights organizations. President Bush, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and John D. Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, all made strong statements condemning the arrests.The U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva is considering a resolution that urges Cuba to allow a human rights envoy to visit the prisoners. The resolution was introduced by Costa Rica, Peru and Uruguay, and is supported by the United States. Cuba denied a similar request in 2002.Many of the arrested dissidents faced charges of conspiring with U.S. diplomats at the United States Interests Section in Havana, Mr. Craner said.Fidel Castro’s government has long claimed that the only opposition to the Cuban government has been “created” by the U.S. government through the interests section, said Mr. Struble. The office promotes democratic change in Cuba and distributes information about the United States.Rep. Christopher H. Smith, the New Jersey Republican who chaired yesterday’s hearing, said Mr. Castro was “shifting the blame” and that Congress demanded “immediate release” of the prisoners.Mr. Struble said the real reason for Mr. Castro’s crackdown was “because the homegrown opposition is losing its fear of the regime and growing in strength and credibility.”Twenty of those arrested had supported the Varela Project, a group working for a national referendum on political and economic reforms in Cuba, which has grown sizably, obtained more than 11,000 signatures and received international praise and recognition.The leader of the group Asamblea, which seeks to create nationwide organizations to pursue political reform, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Cuba’s most prominent independent labor leader was given 25 years.Some were arrested for running independent libraries of uncensored books or for being independent journalists.Karen A. Harbert, deputy assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said the Cuban government is “desperate and afraid” because “thousands of new voices throughout the island now call for democratic change, and their numbers are increasing every day.”USAID grants money to organizations that provide guidance and resources to Cuban activists, journalists, librarians and others. It plans to step up efforts to provide food and medical assistance to the families of the jailed dissidents. Sometimes families are denied work and assistance by the government.Mr. Bush last year challenged Cuba to undertake political and economic reforms and promised that if that happened, he would work with Congress to lift the embargo and travel restrictions.

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