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The Facts on Castro's Oppression By: Lorne W. Craner
U.S. State Department | Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Testimony before the House International Relations Committee in Washington, D.C., given on April 16, 2003.

Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, you are to be commended for holding this hearing to spotlight the recent crackdown in Cuba. The committee's continuing interest in the situation in Cuba is particularly well timed and welcome, given the growing international concern over the efforts of the repressive regime to stifle independent voices and a growing demand for democracy.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today. I want to address two issues, first the worsening human rights situation in Cuba, and second the growing democratic movement in Cuba.

At the same time U.S. forces moved to liberate the people of Iraq from a brutal regime, the sole survivor of totalitarianism in this hemisphere -- the dinosaur dictatorship of Fidel Castro -- moved to brutally repress political dissent among its citizens. Beginning on March 18, the government of Cuba has sought to decapitate the democratic opposition and the strongest voices of independent expression on the island, arresting over 100 persons on spurious charges of subversion and treason and sentencing 75 to long prison terms in secretive and summary tribunals. Prominent targets included independent journalists such as Raul Rivero, independent economists like Maria Beatriz Roque, and a number of independent librarians and labor leaders. Twenty of those arrested had supported the Varela Project, a peaceful and constitutional call for a national referendum on political and economic reforms in Cuba that had obtained over 11,000 signatures and international praise and recognition.

Many of these prisoners of conscience faced charges of collaboration with diplomats at the United States Interest Section in Havana. They were called traitors for their courage in speaking to official Americans such as Jim Cason. Like his predecessors, as chief of the Interest Section, Jim does in fact talk to independent Cuban citizens: an activity hardly worthy of comment, much less alarm, in a free and democratic society but a direct threat to the iron control of information under a dictatorial regime. Like American and other diplomats around the world, Jim and his colleagues work to promote peaceful and democratic changes, provide information about our country, and encourage and strengthen fundamental -- and internationally acknowledged -- freedoms. Only Cuba, and a diminishing number of its totalitarian counterparts, could tremble at the "threat" of library books and free access to the Internet, and call them subversion. In Cuba, a reporter's office files, including envelopes of newspaper clippings, become evidence of treason.

It can be no surprise to any of us that much of the evidence in these so-called trials was provided by agents of the Cuban intelligence service who had successfully infiltrated the Cuban opposition. The fact that government agents successfully infiltrated the Cuban democratic movement is testimony to the regime's fear of this movement, and the resources it is willing to bring to bear in its efforts to intimidate its citizens, to control information, and to stifle freedom of thought and expression. The brave men and women confronted with these betrayals cannot have been surprised either, knowing the very real threat peaceful dissent and independent thought pose to an authoritarian regime. It is testimony to their true courage that this knowledge did not sway or intimidate them. Indeed, this action of the Cuba regime against its own citizens is a stark example of Castro's failure to silence dissent, to establish "revolutionary legitimacy" -- legitimacy of any kind, for that matter. It is further proof of a failed and empty regime.

This brutality, this repression, is nothing new. Systemic violations of fundamental freedoms have long been the hallmark of the Cuba regime, violations denounced by a wide range of independent international organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders, and recognized in the State Department's annual Country Report on Human Rights Practices released on March 31.

Ironically, at the same time as the secretive trials and convictions of these political prisoners -- many facing prison terms of 20 years or more for the non-violent exercise of their right to freedom of expression and association -- Cuba sits on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. A team of representatives of that regime attends the current session working to block condemnation of their own and other repressive regimes. This team is accepted despite what the NGO Human Rights Watch characterized as the flouting of fundamental human rights norms, despite their indifference to that same Commission's 2002 resolution and rejection of the High Commissioner's personal representative, and despite worldwide outrage at the latest brutal crackdown.

Secretary Powell was not alone when he called for an end to the repression in Cuba and insisted that Cubans who seek peaceful change -- and basic human rights and freedoms -- be permitted to do so. His call has been echoed by many others: the European Union, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Sergio de Mello, and prominent figures across the world, including more than 300 artists, intellectuals, and politicians -- Gunter Grass, Pedro Almodovar, and Mario Vargas Llosa among them -- who recently published a letter protesting the recent arrests. Even the French and Portuguese Communist Parties spoke out against the repression, while the Catholic Bishops in Cuba -- who must operate cautiously in the best of times -- issued a statement "profoundly lamenting" the arrests of Cuban citizens for "thinking and acting differently than the official ideology." Despite the bluster and threats of Cuban officials, tree Latin American countries (Costa Rica, Peru, and Uruguay) have drafted another resolution on the human rights situation in Cuba, and many other countries at the commission have voiced their support and their outrage at the recent wave of arrests and trials of political dissidents, and at the summary trials and executions of three ferry hijackers this past week.

This egregious act of political repression is an admission of failure by the regime, an expression of fear directed at the most basic and peaceful expressions of independent thought -- at journalists, librarians, even economists. The regime has sought to characterize members of this movement as the mercenaries of a foreign power, to call the natural demand for freedom "treason." It is the ordinary citizens of Cuba -- like the ordinary citizens of Iraq -- who are finding the individual strength to look past years of repression, to strive for a democratic future and voice their desire for a peaceful transition and a better life. We must continue to support that effort wherever and whenever we can, whether through our outreach to ordinary Cubans or in partnership with like-minded members of the international community. I would like to conclude by stressing that promotion of democracy is and will continue to be a central, defining element of our foreign policy. We will continue to use all available bilateral and multilateral tools at our disposal to combat threats to democracy and to institutionalize democratic reforms toward a stable Western Hemisphere.

Lorne W. Craner is the Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

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