CLAI Commentary

A series of occasional commentaries on important
policy issues affecting
Latin America and the Caribbean.
May 16, 2003

Cubas Deteriorating Situation

                               By Dr. James Ferrer, Jr. and Eduardo Segatore1

The situation in
Cuba has grown increasingly worrisome during recent weeks as the government adopted a more authoritarian stance. This new posture began on March 18 when the Castro regime started to arrest human rights activists, independent journalists, economists and political dissidents. The crisis escalated with the execution of three people on April 11. The arrests and summary executions are the most blatant human rights violations to occur on the island in decades. They have given pause to those in the United States and elsewhere who have been seeking to foster cooperation with Cuba.

On March 18 world attention was focused on the beginning of the
Iraq war. Seemingly, Fidel Castro took advantage of this situation to begin a crack-down on dissidents. By the time the series of arrests ended, 78 people had been detained. These arrests occurred when the influence of the dissident movement in Cuba was growing, as exemplified by the Varela Project, a nationwide movement petitioning for democratic reforms. On April 9 the Cuban Justice Ministry confirmed that the sentencing proceedings had already concluded and that the arrestees’ sentences ranged from 6 to 28 years. For many of the older dissidents, those decisions represented virtual life sentences. According to an April 23 article in the New York Times, over half of the people arrested were members of the Varela Project, including its leader, Oswaldo Payá, who won a human-rights prize from the European Union in 2002.

Equally troubling were the executions of three individuals who had led a group of eleven people in the hijacking of three boats that they wished to divert to the
United States. The hijackers were executed just one week after their arrest. The executions evoked worldwide condemnation of the Castro regime. Not only had Cuba executed three people for a hijacking, it had done so after a very rapid trial.

The new wave of Cuban repression is taking place in an atmosphere of increasing economic deterioration. Some observers believe Castro has reintroduced more repressive political tactics because of this economic deterioration. According to the Latin Business Chronicle,
Cuba has a per capita GDP of US$1,650 (several sources place Cuba’s per capita Purchasing Power Parity at US$2,300, one of the lowest in the hemisphere). Furthermore, the government has begun to reverse some of its recent economic reforms. These latest policy changes reportedly are causing greater hardships and are encouraging people to operate illegally in order to avoid the government’s heavy economic restrictions. This business behavior not only hurts the formal economy, it fosters a mentality that will impede sustainable development.

The situation in
Cuba is causing growing tensions with the United States. On April 2 the members of the newly-formed bipartisan Senate Working Group on Cuba sent a letter to the Cuban Interest Section in Washington DC condemning the arrests and the restrictions placed on the movement of U.S. diplomats in Cuba. Less than two weeks later the U.S. Congress voted 414 to 0 on a resolution demanding the immediate release of the 78 imprisoned activists and journalists. Shortly after the arrests and executions, officials of the Bush administration said they might even stop family remittances (which amount to some $1 billion annually) and direct charter flights between Cuba and the United States. In his May Day speech, Castro responded by lashing out against the United States. He labeled the Bush administration “nazi-fascist,” and warned that Cuba could be the “next Iraq.” To make matters worse, the Cuban government has rejected a visit by United Nations Human Rights investigators, sparking further international criticism.

The current situation in
Cuba is highly unfortunate. The crack-down on dissidents and the summary executions represent a major backward step in Cuba’s much-anticipated reform process. They have also seriously undermined the credibility of those in the United States and elsewhere who have been seeking to modify U.S. policy towards Cuba. Their efforts are unlikely to prosper in the present atmosphere. Rather, all interested parties should apply whatever leverage they might have to persuade the Cuban government to reverse its dictatorial trend. The governments of the Americas, and notably the Organization of American States, should play a stronger role in this situation. They must use the tools available to them to induce the Cuban government to change its course, beginning with the freeing of the dissidents. The OAS must clearly and forcefully demonstrate that it is the hemisphere’s leading advocate of democracy and that the region has no place for authoritarian regimes.

1 The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Issues or The George Washington University