Posted on Fri, Mar. 28, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Cuba's crackdown amid war likely to escape punishment
Regime knows how far to go and when, experts say
VOCAL: Gisela Delgado, right, wife of Hector Palacios, an organizer of the Varela Project, speaks to journalists Wednesday in Havana. Palacios has been jailed in a recent Cuban crackdown on dissent. JOSE GOITIA/AP
VOCAL: Gisela Delgado, right, wife of Hector Palacios, an organizer of the Varela Project, speaks to journalists Wednesday in Havana. Palacios has been jailed in a recent Cuban crackdown on dissent. JOSE GOITIA/AP

Despite worldwide condemnation of Cuba's recent crackdown on dissidents, Fidel Castro's government once again appears likely to escape any damaging consequences, according to a variety of policy analysts.

The manner in which the Cuban government has orchestrated the moves designed to silence human rights activists, the analysts say, displays the various techniques and tactics Castro has used over the years to remain in power and to avoid complete isolation within the international community.

These include well-calculated timing -- in this case, amid a major world crisis that distracted international attention; knowing where to draw the line, such as avoiding the arrest of Cuba's best-known dissident, Oswaldo Payá; and taking actions that can later be reversed, to portray the government as lenient.

''Castro is a master of international theater,'' said Steve Johnson, a policy analyst for Latin America at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. ``This is all part of a calculated effort to keep people cowed.''

''But it's a kind of reversible measure that can be taken,'' he said. ``It strikes fear and will always work to their advantage to lighten up and let people out later because then it shows some progress.''


''As long as the [Iraq] crisis goes on, Castro will not feel any pressure to restrain draconian measures,'' Johnson said. ``They'll release people at a moment when they can grab headlines.''

As proof of just how little fallout Cuba has experienced, experts point to a number of factors:

• The detainees -- numbered at 78 up to Thursday -- remain locked up without formal charges 10 days after the roundups began.

• The United Nations Human Rights Commission, also preoccupied by the war, did not censure Cuba for its poor human rights record at its annual gathering in Geneva earlier this week. It is only the second time in the past decade Cuba has escaped the symbolic scolding from the 53-nation organization, even though it was engaged in a crackdown while the commission was meeting.

• Even as the 15-member European Union joined the United States and international organizations in condemning the arrests, there is no move to sever ties with the island or for member states to dissolve their own bilateral agreements with Cuba.

''Cuba has been receiving money from the European Union for a decade,'' said Joaquín Roy of the European Union Center, a study center at the University of Miami. ``This has nothing to do with the national program.''

'The question on the relationship with the European Union is, `How does it rank within priorities of the Cuban regime?' '' Roy said. 'The answer is, `Very low.' ''

He added: ``Once again, the key is to observe the triangle: What's more important for Castro, the confrontation with the United States or the relationship with the European Union? Notice that anytime there is a possibility of rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, each one or both sides do something to derail it. Most of the time, it's Cuba.''


Nonetheless, a statement released by the European Union classified the detainees as ''prisoners of conscience'' and demanded their release ``without delay.''

According to the statement issued in Greece, which holds the current presidency of the EU, ``Violations of fundamental civil and political rights will be monitored very closely by the European Union and they will continue to influence the Union's relations with Cuba.''

However, the statement did not say how relations might be affected.

Meanwhile, those in custody in Cuba include independent journalists, human rights and political activists, and dissidents who share banned literature with the public. Those monitoring the arrests on the island said none have been given access to lawyers and only some have been allowed 15-minute visits with relatives.


''The intention of the government is very severe, but perhaps some of the strong international criticisms will lead to prison releases,'' Elizardo Sánchez, a longtime human rights activist, said by phone. He was among a handful of prominent dissidents who were not arrested.

Also untouched so far by the islandwide sweep is Payá, who has earned worldwide support for a citizens initiative on democratic reform known as the Varela Project. Analysts said arresting renowned dissidents such as Payá would create too much backlash.

Still, almost half of the people arrested are involved with the Varela Project.

''They've arrested enough to cripple the movement,'' said Charles Barclay, a State Department spokesman.

The government has accused those in custody of conspiring with American diplomats in Havana to dismantle the socialist system.


Even as criticisms continue to pour into Havana, the government and its socialist framework remain firmly in place.

Change does not appear on the horizon and dissidents who had gained some ground and become more vocal in recent months are back to applauding small victories such as the U.N. resolution adopted in Geneva, which asks Cuba to accept a visit by a U.N. monitor -- a notion adamantly rejected by Castro.

''It's written with great diplomatic pragmatism but still criticizes the government,'' said Sánchez, who leads the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. ``Despite its moderation, it was rejected by the Cuban government.''

Herald writer Larissa Ruiz Campo contributed to this report.