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US Lawmakers Criticize Crackdown on Dissidents in Cuba - 2003-04-16


Members of Congress have renewed criticism of the Cuban government in the wake of a recent crackdown on dissidents in that country. Lawmakers on the House of Representatives International Relations committee gathered in an unusual hearing during a congressional recess to examine recent developments.

Congressman Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, chaired Wednesday's hearing, and set the tone when he condemned the recent arrests and imprisonment of dozens of dissidents in Cuba. "With the world's attention riveted on Iraq, the Castro dictatorship indeed has moved with sickening speed, to arrest, try, convict and sentence to draconian jail terms approximately 80 of Cuba's bravest and brightest. Among these are 28 independent journalists and 40 Varela Project workers," he said.

The Bush administration has condemned the crackdown, and what it calls show trials of dissidents. Many of those jailed were members of the Varela Project, collecting petitions demanding a nationwide referendum on free elections and other reforms.

Among witnesses at Wednesday's hearing was a Cuban exile - Eudel Cepero Varela - who spoke through a translator saying, "The army of ballots terrorizes Castro, and for that reason repression, imprisonment and firing squads are the order of the day. The dictator fears both truth and freedom, but this time the difference is that the caudillo cannot take on the role of victim but is exposed as the victimizer of the Cuban people."

Lorne Craner, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Human Rights, Democracy and Labor Affairs, said the Cuban crackdown is an admission of failure by the Castro government. He said, "The regime has sought to characterize members of this movement as the mercenaries of a foreign power, to call the natural demand for freedom 'treason.' It is the ordinary citizens of Cuba, like the ordinary citizens of Iraq, who are finding the individual strength to look past years of repression to strive for a democratic future, and voice their desire for a peaceful transition to a better life," he said.

The House of Representatives recently passed a resolution demanding the immediate release of all political prisoners in Cuba, and urging the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to condemn the crackdown.

The Bush administration wants the commission, now meeting in Geneva, to approve a strong resolution. However, politics within the 53-member organization have resulted in a weaker document than in previous years.

A resolution, as originally proposed, called only for the Cuban government to accept a visit by a U.N. human rights investigator. An effort by Costa Rica to harden that language led to a vote being postponed until Thursday.

Kim Holmes, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, said "As we have done in the past, we have co-sponsored this year's resolution on Cuba. We had worked hard to strengthen it, but there is strong resistance to changing the wording. While the original resolution itself may not have the language we had hoped to achieve, it nevertheless is still a slap in the face for Castro and his regime, from his own neighbors."

Cuban media this week accused the United States of trying to intimidate Latin American and European countries into supporting a strong, critical resolution.

European Union ministers this week said the crackdown in Cuba, and what they called unfair trials and arbitrary and excessive sentences, would weaken Europe's relations with Havana.

Numerous human rights groups and journalist advocacy organizations have also joined in condemning the crackdown which began in March.