By Pascal Fletcher
HAVANA, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Cuba's communist leadership, ignoring both pressure and pleas from abroad to move toward democratic reform, has instead introduced harsher penalties to curb internal political opposition and rising crime.
Cuba's National Assembly (parliament) on Tuesday approved tough legislation aimed at blocking subversion and curbing opposition from anti-government dissidents. Other legislation passed aimed at stamping out an upsurge in crime that has accompanied increased foreign tourism on the island.
The moves were likely to be interpreted by human rights organisations and many foreign governments, even those with friendly ties with Cuba, as a sign of ideological retrenchment by President Fidel Castro's one-party communist government.
``Things in Cuba hadn't been moving anywhere fast. But this is definitely a step backwards,'' said one European diplomat.
One law proposed jail terms ranging up to 30 years for political opponents judged to be ``collaborating'' with the U.S. government's economic embargo policy toward Cuba.
The wide, catch-all wording of the measures against ``counter-revolutionaries and annexationists'' suggested any form of criticism of the government would be vulnerable to persecution, whether it was linked to the United States or not.
A second law directed against crime introduced the death penalty for drug-trafficking and life imprisonment for offences like armed or violent assaults on persons and property.
Castro, explaining the new legislation, said Cuba had the right to defend itself in what he called ``this war against the Yankee empire and its servants inside the country.'' He added: ``We are defending a trench in Latin America and the world.''
The 72-year-old president said Cuba's enemies, principally the U.S. government, were trying to take advantage of ``internal weaknesses'' such as crime, which had increased as a result of Cuba's economic opening after the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
The anti-subversion law, called the ``Law for the Protection of the National Independence and the Economy of Cuba,'' also appeared to be an angry response to modifications to the U.S. embargo announced by U.S. President Bill Clinton last month.
U.S. officials said the changes, which included wider approval for cash remittances and flights to Cuba, were intended to help the Cuban people while maintaining the embargo's financial and political squeeze on the government.
But Cuban officials rejected the measures as a public relations ploy which concealed a strategy to increase support for dissidents and anti-government opponents on the island.
``(The U.S. measures) are intended to subvert the Revolution and maintain intact the iron blockade,'' read the explanatory preamble to the anti-subversion bill.
The new Cuban measures flew in the face of appeals for change by world leaders and dignitaries, such as Pope John Paul and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
These had called for greater freedoms in Cuba during highly-publicised visits last year which Havana used to bolster its campaign against the U.S. embargo.
It was not clear whether the latest Cuban measures might affect a planned visit to Cuba this spring by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain. No date for this has been announced.
The island is also due to host a summit of Ibero-American leaders later in the year and diplomats said the government could be anxious to avoid disruptions to this by dissidents.
The Cuban anti-subversion legislation seeks to penalise all ``collaboration'' with U.S. policy against Cuba in all its manifestations, including the 1996 Helms-Burton law, ``the blockade, the economic war, subversion'' and any similar measures that Washington might adopt in the future.
Establishing jail terms ranging up to 30 years, the bill identifies different forms of ``collaboration'' -- such as supplying, seeking and obtaining information, possessing, reproducing and circulating ``subversive'' material, working with radio and TV stations and publications, and participating in meetings or demonstrations.
Some diplomats said they were puzzled why the authorities felt the need to introduce even tougher legislation against opposition. ``Cuba is not lacking in catch-all legislation that squashes dissidence,'' one diplomat said.
He said the aim might be to frighten and intimidate existing and potential opponents, but added: ``The flip side is it suggests that the government itself might be frightened.''
Some diplomats wondered what impact the hard line would have on four leading moderate dissidents who have spent more than a year and a half in jail without trial.
The Vatican, foreign governments and international human rights organisations have been pressing for the release of Vladimiro Roca, Rene Gomez, Marta Beatriz Roque and Felix Bonne, who have been charged with "sedition.''
Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited