The Globe and Mail (Canada)
Tuesday, Apr. 8, 2003

Graham protests against Cuban trials

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham summoned Cuba's
ambassador to Canada to his office last night to express "extreme
concern" over a dramatic crackdown on peaceful dissent by Fidel
Castro's regime.

The highly unusual move came after the sentencing of dozens of
dissidents to prison terms of 12 to 27 years. Their trials had been
brief and closed, some on charges of co-operating with the United
States to oppose the Communist government.

The tense, 20-minute meeting with ambassador Carlos Fernandez
de Cossio cast a fresh pall over Canada's links to Cuba, just five
months after Ottawa signalled a desire for warmer relations by
sending a cabinet minister to Havana as head of a trade mission.

Mr. Graham presented the ambassador with a protest letter
addressed to Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque. "The
Canadian government is extremely concerned about this potential
curtailment of human rights and freedom of expression in Cuba, and
is deeply disturbed by the severity of the sentences," said the letter,
a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail.

Among those sentenced in the crackdown is economist Marta
Beatriz Roque, who received a 20-year prison term. She earlier
served two years in jail despite a personal plea to Mr. Castro in
1998 by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to release her and three
other dissidents.

Canada downgraded official contacts with Cuba after those jailings.
Still, in November, Denis Paradis, secretary of state for Latin
America, led a delegation of parliamentarians and business people
to Havana.

In the current crackdown, the harshest in decades, well-known
political activist Hector Palacios was jailed for 25 years. Cuba's
best-known independent journalist, the internationally recognized
Raul Rivero, received a 20-year sentence.

A total of 78 activists, librarians and journalists have been rounded
up since March 18. Most of their trials were held Thursday and

Foreign journalists and diplomats were barred from the courtrooms,
but relatives of the dissidents who were allowed to attend gave
details of 36 sentences. The remaining trials are expected to end
this week.

The accused include 27 journalists publishing independent
magazines and news services that are barred from competing with
Cuba's state-owned media but reach audiences outside the island.

Only China, where 39 journalists are in jail, has carried out a harsher
repression against independent media, said Joel Simon, acting
director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Analysts of Cuban affairs say the crackdown is in response to
stepped-up contacts between the senior U.S. diplomat in Cuba and

Since arriving in Havana six months ago, James Cason, head of the
U.S. interests section, has travelled extensively to interview
dissidents and has opened his home to them for meetings.

Reuters news agency reported that government infiltrators were
used to convict the dissidents. The agency said Manuel David Orrio,
who led a meeting of government opponents in Mr. Cason's
residence last month, identified himself as a state security agent
while testifying against Mr. Rivero.

The clampdown is also related to tensions over proposed economic
reform that Mr. Castro is resisting, said Marifeli Perez-Stable, a
sociologist and specialist on Cuba at Florida International University
in Miami.

The arrests began a day before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq,
leading to speculation that Mr. Castro hoped it would receive
minimal coverge while international media were focused on the war.

With news and political debate tightly controlled by Mr. Castro's
regime, dissidents have struggled to make their presence known to
fellow Cubans.

They were given a boost last year when former U.S. president
Jimmy Carter, during a live television broadcast on a visit to Cuba,
mentioned a campaign to collect signatures on a petition calling for
political reform.

Many of those charged in the current roundup were associated with
the petition campaign.

The independent journalists were skilled at finding ways to operate
under restrictive Cuban legislation, Mr. Simon said. The job become
harder with a 1999 law containing stiffer antisedition measures.

"This little window that opened has been slammed shut," he said.