In the past few weeks, the Cuban government has jailed more than 70 dissidents and journalists and executed three men who hijacked a ferry. The reasons for Fidel Castro's crackdown were the topic of a recent debate by Cuba watchers.
Last year, Cuban activist Oswaldo Paya and his supporters attempted to use a little-known provision in the Cuban constitution to gain a voice in Fidel Castro's government. The provision enables citizens to introduce national legislation accompanied by 10,000 signatures. Mr. Paya submitted more than 11,000 signatures to the Cuban National Assembly last May, but the petition was ignored and, since then, many of the movement's organizers have been imprisoned.
Brian Latell is the director of the Central American and Caribbean Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.. He says the movement, called the Varela Project, triggered the current crackdown. He says Castro himself unwittingly aided the project. "He made a terrible mistake when he allowed Jimmy Carter to speak out in public to the Cuban people on Cuban TV, in which Carter told everybody about the Varela project," says Mr. Latell. "They didn't know about it until Jimmy Carter told them about it. That was one of the worst mistakes he's made in 44 years in power."
Mr. Latell says the actions of James Cason, the head of the U.S. Interest Section in Cuba, also inspired the crackdown. Cuban officials assert Mr. Cason organized dissidents in high-profile meetings, reportedly in his own home, and that dissidents received money directly from the U.S. government.
But Mr. Latell says that, regardless of the catalysts, this crackdown is different from Castro's previous assaults on political freedoms, and so are the dissidents. "He can put these people in jail for lengthy prison terms, but they don't want to go into exile. They want to stay, and they want to continue attracting other Cubans," he says. "They're interested in democratic and pacifist change on the island. I don't think Fidel Castro has an effective or viable strategy for dealing with this right now."
Mr. Latell says the dissident population has grown rapidly since the fall of Communism in Europe and the Pope's visit in 1998, and is larger than ever before.
Before the crackdown, some U.S. officials had been pushing for a relaxation of travel restrictions and embargoes against Cuba. Brian Alexander, former director of the non-partisan Cuba Policy Foundation in Washington D.C., says the crackdown has shelved the idea. "Efforts that had been making great progress in the United States Congress, in the business community, among average Americans and certainly among Cuban Americans have been dealt an incredible setback, and that set back is something that will affect politics with respect to Cuba, for some time," says Mr. Alexander.
Fidel Castro is now 76 years old and believed to be in failing health. Cuban affairs specialist Brian Latell says the world can expect increasingly irrational decisions from him. "He has collapsed in public, he has spoken incoherently in public and, I understand, also in private meetings with visitors," says Mr. Latell. "So I think we do have to be increasingly concerned that, as his faculties and capabilities continue to diminish, the potential for of an unintentional crisis provoked by poor decision making by Fidel Castro will become more likely."
But, Mr. Latell says, Mr. Castro's timing of the crackdown, which began on March 14, was no mistake the longtime Cuban leader knew the war in Iraq would draw international attention away from the crackdown.
Susan Kaufman Purcell is Vice President of the New York-based Americas Society, which hosted the panel discussion. She says now is the time for the United States to step up its support for the democratic movement in Cuba. "Whenever the opposition to an authoritarian regime or dictatorship thinks the United States is with them, it encourages them, and gives them new energy," she says. "They get more aggressive in fighting the dictatorship."
Since the crisis, the Committee to Protect Journalists has placed Cuba on its list of the 10 most dangerous places for journalists.