New York Times
April 9, 2003
Stifling Dissent in Havana
s soon as the fighting started in Iraq, Fidel Castro saw his opening. With the world's attention focused elsewhere, more than 80 Cuban pro-democracy dissidents and independent journalists were rounded up and tried on trumped-up charges of subversion in one of Cuba's most severe crackdowns in memory. It is a desperate act of a discredited leader.

The Cuban people themselves seem to realize the absurdity of the Communist government's charges against these dissidents. When Raul Rivero, a well-known poet and independent journalist, was led away from his apartment by security forces, hundreds of people cheered him on, oblivious to the risk entailed by the gesture. On Monday, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Many of the others rounded up were involved in organizing the Varela Project, last year's audacious grass-roots effort to gather more than 10,000 signatures asking the National Assembly to hold a pro-democracy referendum.

The level of repression in Cuba has varied over the years, and this latest crackdown comes after a period of relative tolerance. During a visit to Havana last year, former President Jimmy Carter was even able to mention the Varela Project on Cuban television. But the regime's hard-liners may have felt the need to clamp down during a dire economic crisis - the recent rash of Florida-bound hijackings are indicative of Cubans' growing desperation.

This is not the first time that the aged dictator has chosen to heighten tensions just when it seemed he was making headway toward overcoming his isolation. Mr. Castro apparently feels the need to keep alive Cuba's Orwellian sense of siege and isolation to justify his rule, and he is now victimizing principled democratic activists to serve his purpose.