CNN, February 17, 1999
Web posted at: 11:39 p.m. EST (0439 GMT)
HAVANA (CNN) -- As international media expressed concern and Cuba's independent journalists prepared for tougher times ahead, a top Cuban official Wednesday defended the country's tough new penalties for political opponents as being justified by growing U.S. pressure.
"Cuba is the only country involved in a constant war with the strongest power in the world," the president of Cuba's parliament, Ricardo Alarcon, told a news conference.
"(U.S.) policy seeks the death of a country, of a nation," he said, and a nation fighting for survival "has the right to use every means" to defend itself.
Alarcon was defending tough anti-crime legislation approved Tuesday by the National Assembly and a new measure that aims to curb internal dissent that might benefit the United States, Cuba's main political enemy.
The criminal law expands the use of the death penalty, and the anti-subversion law establishes jail terms of up to 20 years for political opponents judged to be "collaborating" with the U.S. government's hostile economic embargo against Cuba.
The measures would ban the introduction of "subversive" materials into the country, along with the importation of equipment designed to disseminate such information. They also restrict collaboration with the news media if such work furthers the trade embargo or related U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Dissident journalists now 'vulgar delinquents'
Independent journalists in Cuba reacted with dismay to the new restrictions.
"A journalist who dissents from the official political line is no longer a media professional, but rather a vulgar delinquent," said journalist Manuel Vasquez. "This makes obvious to the world the lack of freedom of expression from which we suffer."
Vasquez is one of a group of dissident journalists that meets every Wednesday in a Havana apartment to prepare stories about Cuba that are submitted to uncensored Internet sites or Radio Marti, the U.S.-funded station that broadcasts back to Cuba.
Hector Palacios, another member of the group, said that while the crackdown would doubtless make it harder for journalists, it would not keep them from practicing their profession.
"This is undoubtedly a violent blow for us, but it will not force us to renounce our right to express ourselves peacefully, as we have until now," Palacios said.
The Cuban journalists got support Wednesday from the Inter American Press Association, whose members include newspaper editors and publishers from around the Americas. The group sent a letter to President Fidel Castro protesting the law, saying it "clearly gives legal status to censorship and a ban on reporting."
Many independent Cuban journalists are in regular contact with Radio Marti, which opposes the Castro government. Others work for news media in the United States and Europe, often producing reports that include criticism of the communist system.
Law a response to Helms-Burton
Alarcon suggested that many of those who call themselves independent journalists do so only to obtain money and equipment from organizations that buy their dispatches.
"They are created as journalists or poets simply because someone gives them money," he said.
Alarcon said the new legislation was a direct response to the 1996 U.S. Helms-Burton law, which tightened the long-running U.S. embargo and backed groups on the island opposed to the one-party communist government.
"In reality, this (U.S.) blockade has intensified. ... Cuba has the obligation to use judicial and penal measures to confront this application of the blockade," he said.
The move comes a little more than a month after U.S. President Clinton announced measures designed to increase contact between the American and Cuban people while maintaining the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
Cuban officials complained that Clinton's proposal did nothing to ease the sanctions.
Alarcon: All opponents are pro-U.S.
While independent journalists are clearly the primary target of the new laws, the wide, catch-all wording of the measures against "counter-revolutionaries and annexationists" suggested that it could be interpreted to cover any form of criticism of the government, whether it was linked to the United States or not.
When asked about that, Alarcon replied that after so many years of U.S. hostility, the Cuban government could not conceive of any kind of political opposition on the island that was not linked to U.S. policy.
"That's the kind (of opposition) we've always known," he said.
The crackdown on pro-U.S. dissidence also comes amid a larger effort to set tough new laws and sentences for both common and political criminals.
Correspondent Lucia Newman Reuters contributed to this report.
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