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March 21, 2003
 
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(AP Photo)
Cuban Agents Round Up More Dissidents
Cuban State Agents Round Up more Dissidents In Campaign to Root Out Growing Opposition

The Associated Press


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HAVANA March 21

Cuban state agents rounded up more dissidents Friday in their campaign to root out growing organized opposition on the communist island. A non-governmental human rights group said 72 dissidents had been arrested.

The detainees included more than a dozen independent journalists, owners of lending libraries, leaders of opposition political parties and pro-democracy activists who gathered signatures for a reform effort known as the Varela Project.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders accused the government of taking advantage of the world's preoccupation with the U.S.-led war in Iraq to carry out the roundup.

"Human rights in Cuba can therefore be viewed as one of the first cases of collateral damage in the second Gulf war," said Robert Menard, the group's secretary general. "Human rights in other countries could also soon suffer the same fate."

On Friday the non-governmental Cuban Commission on Human Rights and Reconciliation reported 72 dissidents had been detained.

Some of the island's best-known critics remained free, including veteran rights activist Elizardo Sanchez, Varela Project organizer Oswaldo Paya and Vladimiro Roca, son of the late Cuban Communist Party founder Blas Roca.

But all three reported they had been under heavy surveillance by plainclothes security agents in recent days and said they would not be surprised if they were next.

"They are outside my house, on the corner," Sanchez said by telephone late Thursday.

The crackdown marked an end to several years of relative tolerance for Cuba's critical voices.

During that time, Paya and his colleagues collected more than 11,000 signatures of Cubans asking Fidel Castro's government for a referendum on new laws guaranteeing civil rights such as free expression and private business ownership.

The Varela Project initiative, later shelved by the nation's rubber-stamp parliament, also requested electoral reforms and an amnesty for political prisoners.

The independent journalists also grew bolder in recent months, launching a new general interest magazine in a nation where virtually all media is state-controlled.

But American diplomats also grew more active, offering Internet access to journalists at the U.S. Interests Section here, inviting dissidents to receptions, and giving them radios, pamphlets and other material the government considered subversive.

Cuban authorities became increasingly incensed in recent months as the mission's new chief, James Cason, began meeting publicly with the opposition and criticizing Castro's government to international journalists here.

Such assistance often does Cuban opponents more harm than good by giving the communist government an excuse to accuse them of collaborating with the enemy, said Manuel Cuesta Morrua of the opposition party Socialist Democratic Current.

"What could happen is that this could be used to close all the political spaces that the opposition has opened" in recent years, Cuesta said.

Although the arrests appeared timed to coincide with the Iraq war, there were other political factors that made it clear Cuba was willing to risk international criticism in its effort to root out dissent.

The crackdown began during a meeting in Geneva of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, which has repeatedly criticized Cuba. It also came weeks before a scheduled meeting here with moderate Cuban emigres Havana hopes can help end American restrictions on Cuban trade and travel.

At the same time, Cuba hopes to join the European Union's trade and economic aid pact for developing nations. EU officials have expressed strong concern about the nation's human rights record.


photo credit and caption:
Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya speaks with the media at his house in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, March 20, 2003. Fidel Castro's government rounded up more of its critics on Thursday, part of a mushrooming crackdown spurred by allegations of dissidents conspiring with U.S. diplomats.(AP Photo/Cristobal Herrera)

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

 
 
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