March 20, 2000
Pedro Betancur. The Economist
AN ORDERLY grid of single-storey houses surrounded by sugar-cane fields, the town of Pedro Betancur could be anywhere in Cuba. Older inhabitants tell how Fidel Castros revolution 40 years ago brought health services, education and at first some prosperity. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Cuba lost many of its sugar markets, the towns economy has suffered, opening cracks in the Communist Partys strict control. Even so, the human-rights group that started up in Pedro Betancur three years ago was something new for small-town Cuba.
The group was set up by locals who wanted to end one-party rule. "Their main activity was handing out copies of the universal declaration of human rights," explains Josefina Lopez, whose imprisoned husband was one of the founders. "They would do things like putting flowers on the statues of independence heroes in the park."
Criticism of the government is tolerated in Cuba. But anyone who tries to recruit followers or mount a public challenge quickly gets into trouble. In December, three of the group were arrested and charged with "instigating crime". The others, however, stepped up their activities.
Over Christmas, until their licences for self-employment were taken away, they handed out free milk-shakes in the park. "That particularly annoyed the authorities," says Mrs Lopez. "The movement was getting support. They were told no more public activities would be allowed."
Things came to a head on January 22nd, when the group gathered in a house to start a protest fast. A crowd of government vigilantes, most of them from outside the town, barged in, shouting insults and slogans. "They hit one of my sons on the head with a stick, cutting him badly. They broke anothers rib," says Gloria Gonzalez, a frail 68-year-old, who looks 20 years older, and is the mother of several of the activists. "They kicked me hard and knocked me over. The police were right outside, but did nothing."
The attack was brutally effective. Seven others were arrested. Those still free say they will find it much harder to gain recruits in a town where everyone saw what happened.
This was not an isolated case. The independent Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission in Havana says almost 600 people have been temporarily detained, put under house arrest or otherwise had their movements restricted since November, in what it calls the worst crackdown in a decade. That appears to be the response of Mr Castros government to tentative efforts by opposition groups to become better known, by carrying out public protests and other outlawed activities.
Mr Castro was visibly annoyed when the opposition stole some of his limelight at the Ibero-American summit held in Havana last November. Visiting leaders from Spain, Portugal and Latin America went out of their way to meet dissidents or voice public support for them. Afterwards, Mr Castro blamed a "Yankee strategy" for creating a "virtual reality" out of an opposition which he claims does not exist.
So does the crackdown mean the Cuban leader is impervious to all the international exhortations, from friends as well as enemies, to respect human rights? Not quite. In fact, he may be no less repressive than he used to be, but there has been a shift in the pattern of his repression in recent years, and it derives from the fact that the Soviet collapse meant Cuba had to strengthen its ties with the capitalist world. The long prison sentences that used to be handed out have been replaced by constant harassment, which attracts less criticism from abroad. "The government is using a policy of low-profile or low-intensity repression, consisting of many short-term arrests," says Elizardo Sanchez, head of the human-rights commission in Havana. Jail sentences are a last resort. Even so, Mr Sanchez has documented 350 political prisoners in Cuba. Four people have been convicted since November.
Mr Castro has rejected all appeals, including those from the pope and the leaders of Canada, Mexico and Spain, for the release of opponents, such as Marta Beatriz Roque and Vladimiro Roca, who have been in prison for "sedition" since July 1997. Indeed, in October Mr Castro said that outside appeals would merely mean that such prisoners would have to serve their full sentences.
But the president has tailored his policy to try to minimise international criticismwithout jeopardising his control. The crackdown has coincided with a huge campaign orchestrated by the regime for the return from Miami of Elian Gonzalez, the shipwrecked six-year-old boy at the centre of a bitter custody battle. Many dissidents agree that Elian should go back to Cuba. But they see the issue as one of the red herrings that Mr Castro is so adept at spawning, to divert attention from other problems on the island.
Cubas intelligence services have infiltrated all the dissident groups, so the president knows exactly what they do. Recently he boasted that "revolutionary dissidents" kept him informed, chuckling to himself as he waved lists of names of those who had attended meetings with American officials. Usually the door is open for opponents who want to leave the country. So far, at least, this policy has worked, preventing any real challenge to Mr Castro. Cubas domestic opposition remains small and divided, with no public voice on the island. As long as that is so, no amount of criticism from abroad is likely to change the Cuban leaders mind.
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