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material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or