- The Washington Times - Monday, September 29, 2003

HAVANA — The wickedness of Pedro Luis Veliz is not written in his face. Unless forewarned, you would not give the mousy Cuban doctor a second glance.

A specialist in intensive care, this 39-year-old husband and father spent the past seven years at the heart of Cuba’s dissident movement without attracting the least attention.

This spring, Fidel Castro’s secret police carried out their largest crackdown in a decade, arresting 75 dissidents in a three-day operation that began on the day American forces invaded Iraq. When the dust settled, Dr. Veliz was nowhere to be seen.

Two weeks later, the fractured opposition learned why: Dr. Veliz, their comrade in arms since 1996, turned up in a Havana court as a star prosecution witness — one of a dozen “heroic” agents planted in the dissident movement by the secret police.

Dr. Veliz gave evidence against six former colleagues: independent journalists, democracy activists and a dissident physician. His testimony earned his former colleagues sentences ranging from 15 to 25 years — 116 years in all.

It earned Dr. Veliz a propaganda tour around Cuba, cheered by crowds prodded into place by local committees for the defense of the revolution — the party snoops posted in each city block and rural district of the island with the power to exact displays of communist fervor from anyone wanting a telephone line, slates for a leaking roof, a job reference or some other favor from officialdom.

This month, exactly six months after the arrests, the Daily Telegraph became the first British newspaper to meet the double agents behind Mr. Castro’s crackdown.

Dr. Veliz and his wife — who is also a secret police agent — arrived at a government press center with a silent, crop-haired official they described as a “friend,” who disappeared as the interview began, reappearing at the end. One wall of the interview room was dominated by a two-way mirror.

In Cuba, the secret police have blackmail down to a fine art.

In a country where the black market is often the only source of food, and “subversion” means criticizing socialism or listening to foreign radio, every Cuban has broken the law.

After hearing him brag, Dr. Veliz seems to have been motivated by no more than fear and the conviction that everyone he met was no better than himself.

Describing his recruitment in 1996, Dr. Veliz recalled: “It was the simplest thing in the world.

“A state security officer came to my workplace and asked me to collaborate with them.

“He told me one of my colleagues and neighbors was linked to counterrevolution, and if he invited me to join him, say ‘yes.’”

Dr. Veliz swiftly came to the attention of American support groups, mostly run out of Miami, who offer cash, equipment and encouragement to opposition activists, some of it from U.S. government funds earmarked for promoting Cuban democracy.

He ended up heading a group for dissident doctors, the Independent Medical College, with 20 members.

Members received the equivalent of $100 a month from Miami, five times their official salaries, in exchange for reports on the crisis in Cuba’s much-vaunted medical system — a central plank of Mr. Castro’s revolution.

His comrades reported hospitals in collapse, empty pharmacy shelves, and the decision to reserve Cuba’s best clinics and specialists for dollar-paying foreigners.

To Dr. Veliz, not one had sincere motives. “They criticized every act taken by the Health Ministry, and they did it 100 percent for money from Miami. Who pays, rules,” he said.

Some wanted to get U.S. visas to leave Cuba, added his wife, Dr. Ana Rosa Jorna. She was recruited as a secret agent at the suggestion of Dr. Veliz after she became suspicious of his dissident activities, thinking the late nights and mysterious ways were signs of another woman.

Dr. Veliz had no sympathy for the six men he put in prison. “Their main motivation was to fight among themselves for money,” he said. “They thought I was a friend, but I wasn’t.”

“They lived very well, without working,” his wife added.

He recalled, with a rare flash of emotion, the excitement of revealing to the court his identity as “Agent Ernesto.” He added: “There was an exclamation from the spectators. It was a shock. I felt proud.”

Cuba describes the summary trials for the 75 — barred to foreign press and diplomats — as the unmasking of “mercenaries” hired by the U.S. quasi-embassy in Havana and its energetic new chief of mission, James Cason.

Dr. Veliz and his fellow agents told the court that the U.S. mission handed out equipment and literature to independent journalists and librarians. An Internet cafe was made available to activists.

“They gave me medical journals, a flashlight and a shortwave radio,” Dr. Veliz said. “They gave other people computers and fax machines.”

U.S. diplomats asked him about conditions in hospitals and medical colleges. “Many times, they asked me about the health of Fidel,” he added.

There is a problem with Dr. Veliz’s grand revelations, however. The distribution of equipment was public, even publicized by American diplomats.

Independent journalists and dissidents interviewed by the Daily Telegraph last year in Havana all freely acknowledged that they were paid for their contributions to U.S.-based news Web sites. With many of them fired for their political beliefs, they frankly welcomed the help feeding their families.

As if sensing the need to raise the ante, Dr. Veliz accused Mr. Cason — a hate figure since he publicly declared Fidel Castro was “afraid of free speech” — of inciting terrorism.

“I received videos after Cason arrived, inciting internal subversion, civil disobedience and attacking the army and police with violence. The contents of the videos also incited us to plant bombs,” he said.

Pressed, he described a section in the video on the Nazi occupation of Denmark, explaining how bombs and violent resistance forced a German retreat. “The narration was incitement to plant bombs. There was much blood, violence and destruction,” he said.

Within the fortresslike U.S. mission, an American diplomat expressed anger at this accusation, producing the videos in question — a three part documentary titled “A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict.”

The videos charted the history of Mohandas K. Gandhi, of Solidarity in Poland, consumer boycotts in South Africa and other acts of civil disobedience, the diplomat said. It was “absurd, or a willful suspension of rational analysis,” to label the video as incitement to violence, the diplomat added.

Two of the dissidents condemned to jail on the testimony of Dr. Veliz spoke at length to the Daily Telegraph last year, during a high point in opposition activity — when an unprecedented petition demanding reform garnered signatures of 11,000 Cubans.

The two, Hector Maseda Gutierrez and Oswaldo Alfonso Valdes, were sentenced to 20 years and 18 years respectively. The pair — articulate and brave men when interviewed by this newspaper — were political dunces, forever squabbling about money and power, Dr. Veliz said.

At Mr. Maseda’s cramped apartment in central Havana, a remarkable gathering gave a very different account.

The wives of Mr. Maseda and Mr. Alfonso were joined by three other women whose husbands were jailed this spring, including the wife of Raul Rivero, the poet and writer who was the most prominent activist caught in the crackdown.

Laura Pollan, Mr. Maseda’s wife, described returning from teaching at a local high school to find a dozen secret police in her home.

She hid her fear. “I wasn’t going to cry in front of them,” she said.

As he left, Mr. Maseda took his wife’s hand and told her: “Laura, you have nothing to be ashamed of. I am not a murderer or a thief, or someone immoral. I’m going [to prison] for my ideas.”

The new prisoners have been sentenced to an initial two years of “maximum severity” imprisonment.

This means solitary confinement in 6-by-9-foot cells infested with cockroaches and scorpions and devoid of electric light or clean water. Many of the imprisoned men are not young and not well.

Family visits are allowed once every three months, but are difficult and expensive. In a final act of spite, the husbands have been jailed in Cuba’s farthest regions, including Guantanamo, 600 miles from Havana. Oswaldo Alfonso’s 6-year-old son thinks his father is ill and in a military hospital — a story invented to explain the uniformed guards when he visited with his mother.

“But he asked me, ‘Mummy, where are the ambulances?’” said his mother, Claudia Marquez.

Most of the wives did not know each other before the trials, but have been bound tightly by their shared fate and Christian faith.

Neighbors and colleagues are mostly too scared to offer them more than muttered expressions of concern.

If Mrs. Pollan met Dr. Veliz again, she said, she would congratulate him on his hard work as a spy.

“But I would say, as a doctor, what did he do to save lives? What sort of doctor sends men who are sick to prison?”

She refused to condemn the double agents. “They’ve made mistakes, and they will answer to the Lord,” she said to a polite applause from the others.

Asked what she thought of the Western tourists visiting Havana in their Che Guevara T-shirts, apparently oblivious to the current crackdown, Mrs. Pollan ran to fetch a T-shirt bearing an image of her husband.

“They have their heroes. This is my hero,” she said.

It is arguable that the sentences handed down this spring are in fact life sentences — with the life in question being that of Fidel Castro, who turned 77 in August and whose death is likely to trigger major changes in a nation he rules as an absolute king.

The women refused to speculate on when their husbands might be freed, saying they trusted to God to decide. In the meantime, despite the dangers, they refuse to be silent.

Mrs. Pollan revealed the risks they run.

“Agents have told me, if I’m interviewed by journalists, I will lose visiting rights to my husband. But if I stay silent, who will speak for him? The world has to know the situation in Cuba.”

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