With stiff jail sentences and widespread intimidation, Cuban President Fidel Castro has slammed shut a political opening that just two years ago led to the birth and expansion of human rights groups on the island, Americas Watch reported Tuesday to the Organization of American States.
The collapse of Soviet bloc allies coupled with the loss of sympathetic governments in Nicaragua and Panama has led an increasingly isolated Castro to lash out against emerging rights groups, according to Kenneth Roth, deputy director of the international rights monitor.
"Unfortunately, the picture presented is one of increasing repression against the few who dare to test the narrow limits of dissent tolerated by the Cuban government," Roth said, in testimony before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at the OAS.
Roth, who visited the island last month, said two independent Cuban rights groups -- the Cuban Committee for Human Rights and the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation -- have seen top leaders jailed in recent months and endured systematic "sniping around the edges."
Meanwhile, newer organizations, including the Movement for Democratic Integration and a group lobbying for free artistic expression, "have been decimated through arrest and prison," Roth said.
Castro appeared willing to tolerate greater dissent in late 1987 and 1988, Roth said, as rights advocates began to meet, gather information and report to the international community; activities that previously would have landed them in jail.
International pressure could be credited for some of the political opening, Roth said. Eager to avoid a condemnation by the United Nations, Castro agreed to a proposal by Latin nations and let a U.N. team visit Cuba in 1988.
The situation quickly deteriorated. Eleven human rights activists and others who tried to meet with the U.N. delegation were arrested, while others were harassed by authorities. Demonstrators who seized on the visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in April 1989 were arrested on charges ranging from "clandestine printing" to "illicit association."
Three top rights advocates -- Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation; Hiram Abi Cobas, former head of the Human Rights Party; and Hubert Jerez, head of the Marti Committee for Human Rights -- were sentenced to terms of 18 months to two years for sharing their views with foreign journalists on the drug trafficking trial of Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa and other top officials.
During the 1990 session of the U.N. Committee on Human Rights, activist Gustavo Arcos Bergnes and his brother, Sebastian, were hounded by government-backed mobs. The seven- member OAS commission, which includes representatives from the United States, the Caribbean and Latin America, gathers testimony twice a year, issues reports and occasionally petitions governments directly.
The Cuban interests section in Washington declined to comment Tuesday.
© 1996 The Miami Herald.