At a time when Cuba's human rights record is under intense international scrutiny, Americas Watch has released a report that documents intensifying repression and "increasingly brazen and violent" actions against human rights activists and dissidents on the island.
The group, which monitors human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean, said that attempts by pro-democracy groups to carve out a small political space in Cuba during the past year were met with prison, detentions, dismissals from jobs, attacks and the organized pro-government mobs who stage "often violent" acts of repudiation against dissidents.
Cuban authorities have arrested more than 200 human rights monitors and activists since 1989, the watchdog group said. At least 42 of those are currently serving jail terms and 11 others are detained awaiting trial, the group believes.
Americas Watch said 26 dissidents and activists have been arrested in the past six months, and dozens of others have been detained briefly since September.
"The government's actions against its most outspoken critics remind all Cubans, long accustomed to a government that rewards conformity, of the high cost of challenging the status quo," the report said.
Nevertheless, Americas Watch noted that 1991 was marked by the emergence of a variety of independent pro-democracy groups "spurred by frustrations with the government's political intransigence and concern about the effects of heightened economic hardship caused by the loss of Cuba's traditional international trading partners."
The Americas Watch report, released last week, coincided with a debate on Cuba's human rights record by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
Americas Watch said it agreed with U.N. special representative Rafael Rivas Posada that "the rights of free expression, political participation and free association have been seriously reduced" in Cuba.
Though the United States led efforts at the United Nations to hold Cuba accountable for its human rights record, Americas Watch said that because of the Bush administration's "adversarial relationship" with Cuba, the United States has "limited influence on the Cuban government's human rights practices."
The major U.S. leverage is the trade embargo, said the report.
While Americas Watch took no position on the embargo, the monitoring group said several aspects of it are "inconsistent with the human rights obligations of the United States. Chief among those is the effective ban on travel to Cuba by those residing in the United States."
The Americas Watch report also outlined other worrisome developments in Cuba over the past year:
* An escalation of the Cuban government's public denunciations of its internal opponents and the creation of a new layer of surveillance of those perceived to be out of sync with the regime.
* The creation of "rapid response brigades" -- government- organized civilian brigades that are supposed to intimidate those "with political and ideological problems," according to Americas Watch.
* The creation late last year of a "unified vigilance and protection system" designed to combat crime and other "anti- social" activities. The state also began arming selected workers in warehouses, factories, cargo trains and state farms to fight against a rise in corruption and theft as the economy deteriorates.
In the largest application of the new vigilance system to date, more than 400,000 Havana residents recently ended massive surveillance exercises called "Giron-92." Similar exercises were carried out in some other provinces.
The Cuban government says the new vigilance system was created to fight crime, black marketeering and other "anti- social activities," but human rights activists fear it may be used against them.
The climate for guarantees of human rights is bleak, said the report, because "Cuba lacks the laws and institutions that would protect basic civil and political rights."
Americas Watch noted one positive development in 1991: Cuba made it easier for its citizens to travel abroad.
* Daniel Azpillaga, Tomas Azpillaga, Basilio Alexis Lopez and Rigoberto Martinez Castillo, of the Cuban Democratic Coalition, were arrested Sept. 6 after they tried to stage a demonstration in front of state security headquarters in Havana. Daniel Azpillaga was sentenced to two years; the others got terms of 10-11 months.
* Reinaldo Betancourt Alvarez, Anibal Cruz and Julian Jorge Reyes -- members of the Association of Defenders of Political Rights (ADEPO) -- were arrested Oct. 9 and tried on charges of illegal association, clandestine printing and incitement to commit a crime. Betancourt and Reyes are serving three-year terms; Cruz got two years and three months.
* ADEPO leader Luis Alberto Pita Santos was arrested Oct. 9, but hasn't been charged. He reportedly faces charges of contempt, clandestine printing and incitement.
* Jorge Quintana Silva, a former mathematics student who was found guilty of contempt for offending top government leaders in 1990 and expelled from the University of Havana, had been under a form of house arrest. Quintana, who is affiliated with the Cuban Democratic Convergence (CDC), was taken to prison Oct. 9 -- two days after a CDC press conference -- and is believed to be serving the rest of his three-year term in jail.
* Maria Elena Cruz Varela. Nov. 18, the day after she and three other leading activists met with a Spanish leader, a mob surrounded her home, dragged the poet down the stairs and forced sheets of paper containing her writings into her mouth. She was briefly detained but was arrested again two days later and tried. The leader of Criterio Alternativo is now serving a two- year jail term.
* Marco Antonio Abad, a filmmaker arrested trying to videotape the incident at the Cruz Varela home, was arrested Nov. 19. Jorge Crespo, who has collaborated on art projects with Abad, was detained three weeks later. Both are still being held.
* Six other members of Criterio Alternativo were tried and convicted on Nov. 28 and 29 and are serving jail terms. Jorge Pomar Montalvo and Fernando Velazquez got two-year terms; Gabriel Aguado Chavez, 1 1/2 years; Pastor Herrera Macuran and Hubert Luis Matos Sanchez, 16 months; and Eliezer Aguilar Lopez, one year.
* Yndamiro Restano, head of the pro-democracy Harmony Movement (MAR) was arrested Dec. 20 as he left his parents' Havana home. He remains in pretrial detention.
* Bienvenida Cucalo Santana, head of the Cuban Humanitarian Women's Movement, and two other group members -- Joel Duenas and Arturo Garnica -- were arrested Dec. 31 -- apparently in connection with a letter they submitted to the Council of State calling for the release of political prisoners. Garnica has been released, but the two others remain in detention.
* On Jan. 15, Sebastian Arcos Bergnes and two other leaders of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights were detained. The others were released, but Arcos remains in detention. He reportedly has been threatened with the charge of rebellion.
* Seven members of the Cuban Human Rights Party -- Francisco Gonzalez Chavez, Lazaro Henriquez, Armando Llado, Guillermo del Valle Fernandez, Mirian Noda, Juan Graveran Piloto and Maximo Weil -- were reportedly arrested in late January and early February. Americas Watch says it is unclear whether they are still held.
* Jorge Ramon Rodriguez Benitez, a member of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights in Pinar del Rio province, was reportedly arrested Jan. 24 along with his wife, Candida Rosa Perez. She was later released; his status is unclear.
* State security carried out a mass arrest of members of the Cuban Democratic Coalition on Jan. 6 at the home of activist Angela Herrera while the group was having a telephone conversation with a Miami radio station. Americas Watch says the group was reportedly detained overnight, but the Cuban National Unity Front, a group that has ties with the Cuban American National Foundation, reports that two members -- Adriano Gonzalez Marichal and Pedro Armenteros -- are still being held.
© 1996 The Miami Herald.