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From Cuba, Opponents of Castro Appeal to US Congress for Help


Cuban dissidents have made emotional appeals from Havana for the United States and Europe to do more to help the opposition to President Fidel Castro. They spoke in an unprecedented telephone call Thursday directly to a congressional hearing marking the second anniversary of a 2003 Cuban government crackdown on dissidents.

Three of Cuba's best-known dissidents told lawmakers on the House Western Hemisphere and Human Rights Subcommittees they and others campaigning for democracy still risk harsh reprisals in retaliation for their activities.

Rene Gomez Manzano is a lawyer and key dissident leader imprisoned in the late 1990s for his pro-democracy activities.

"More than 90 percent of the Cuban people is against the present government," he said. "Of course, they are not able to speak their minds. They are controlled totally by the state, which is the sole employer in our country. They are not able to speak what they really think."

Felix Bonne is a leading dissident imprisoned from 1997 until 2000, and a founding member of an organization of academics pressing for political reform in Cuba.

Speaking through an interpreter, he says Cubans are subject to the manipulation of laws by Fidel Castro.

"I can give you a more practical definition and that is how Fidel Castro understands this concept and the punishment that goes with it," he added. "For him [Fidel Castro], treason is anything that anybody believes and anybody thinks that is different from his belief or what he thinks, and notwithstanding what any written law may say. For him law is like chewing gum and can be molded as he chews."

Cuban President Fidel Castro has accused pro-democracy dissidents of being paid by the U.S. government to foment what Mr. Castro calls counter-revolutionary sentiment.

In Thursday's hearing, U.S. lawmakers renewed their call for the immediate release of imprisoned dissidents, and urged governments in Europe and elsewhere to step up pressure for change.

"What were the so-called crimes of these brave men and women in Cuba?" he asked. "Advocating democracy, writing as independent journalists, being men and women of faith. Their real offense was to dare to question the authority of a single man, Mr. Castro," said Republican Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey.

Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega echoes President Bush's pledges to support democracy around the world and promised continuing U.S. support for Cuba's pro-democracy movement.

"History will never absolve the Cuban dictator," he said. "It will remember him as a young man who made too many promises, but as a wretched old man who told too many lies. The Bush administration is committed to standing with the Cuban people, as they write the new chapters in their history."

He says Washington is committed to breaking through Cuban government censorship with radio and television broadcasts, and will sponsor a resolution on Cuba at this year's U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting.

Martha Beatriz Roque was one of some 75 dissidents jailed two years ago in the biggest crackdown by the Castro regime in years.

Released in 2004 from a 20-year jail sentence because of poor health, she says pressure from the international community can provide what she calls an umbrella of protection for those campaigning for democracy.

"What is an umbrella for us? An umbrella for us means the government of this country will not put us in jail," she said.

That protection, she says, will become even more important later this year when pro-democracy activists plan to hold, in Cuba in May, what they call a Congress of Cuban Democrats.

In their comments, the Cuban dissidents renewed criticism of a European Union decision in February to lift human rights-related diplomatic sanctions against Cuba, a move that followed Havana's release of 14 dissidents.

After hearing from the dissidents Thursday, the congressional panel approved and sent to the full House of Representatives for virtually certain approval, a resolution marking the 2nd anniversary of the Cuban government crackdown.

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