Sponsors shelve exile talks in Havana
Decision during dissidents' trial
BY NANCY SAN MARTIN
Sponsors on Friday called off a major conference between Cuban exiles and officials that was to be held in Havana next week. The government's island-wide drive to silence critics continued to draw international condemnation.
The decision to call off the April 11-13 ''Nation and Emigration'' conference came as dissidents accused of subversion faced a second day of trials that offered fresh evidence of the efficiency of the government's internal security apparatus.
Several witnesses initially identified as dissidents suddenly revealed themselves as State Security agents spying on the real government opponents, according to press reports out of Havana.
At least one defendant blamed pressure from U.S. diplomats in Havana for his acts. Another witness was identified as a spy for the Cuban government. A third claimed to have carried out clandestine work for the government by infiltrating opposition groups with links to backers in Miami.
The trials of as many as 83 people rounded up in arrests carried out two weeks ago are expected to proceed through the weekend, with sentences to be handed down days later.
The crackdown against leaders of independent labor unions, opposition political parties and activists involved in the democratic reform initiative known as the Varela Project has drawn some of harshest international condemnation Cuba has faced in years.
On Friday, the Inter American Commission on Human Rights became the latest group to issue a reproach, urging Cuban officials to stop what it called a ''wave of repression.'' The government has not responded to international criticism so far.
The dissidents are accused of working with U.S. diplomats to subvert the country's socialist system. In court testimony disclosed Friday, one of the defendants, Osvaldo Alfonso Valdés, of Havana's Cuban Liberal Party, said he regretted his activities and ''gave the impression that he was being manipulated'' by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, according to Miriam Leiva, a dissident supporter.
In another courtroom where prominent activist Martha Beatriz Roque faced life imprisonment, prosecutors identified her organization's secretary, Aleida Godínez, as a government spy who infiltrated the dissident group.
"She was the witness who damaged my aunt the most,'' said Roque's nephew, Joel Alfonso Roque.
Life sentences are being sought for at least a dozen defendants.
Others facing stiff penalties include renowned poet and independent journalist Raúl Rivero, who was being tried Friday alongside Ricardo González, the editor of De Cuba, a new general interest magazine publishing the works of Cuban journalists working outside state-controlled media. Prosecutors were seeking 20 years for Rivero and life for González under a law that prohibits Cubans from working with a foreign power to undermine the government.
The government has described the defendants as traitors paid by the United States to help dismantle the Cuban revolution. It also blamed the United States for increased internal problems that led to three hijackings over the past two weeks.
Those were the reasons cited for the sudden decision not to hold the talk, expected to attract as many as 1,000 exiles, at least 600 from the United States.
''International tensions provoked by the war against Iraq have now been augmented by the increasing deterioration of relations between Cuba and the United States, as a consequence of growing hostilities and provocations against our country,'' said a statement published in the Communist Party daily Granma Friday.
"This has been further complicated by the complex situation created by the most recent incidents related to forceful hijacking of aircraft and maritime vessels for the purpose of illegal emigration to the United States, a direct consequence of the stimulus created by the application of the Cuban Adjustment Act.''
Juan Hernández-Acén, a spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, said the conference would be held at a later date.
''One of the primary objectives of our government is dialogue,'' he said. ``But at the moment the relationship with the United States continues to decrease. If the U.S. didn't have certain incentives in place, a lot of the things occurring wouldn't happen.''
Participants who were looking forward to the talk -- the third of its kind in the past decade -- said they were disappointed but thought the government's decision to postpone the event was prudent.
''It's probably the right move,'' said Elena Freyre, a Miami activist. "The situation is a little tense between the two countries right now.''
Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who is a member of the bipartisan Cuba Working Group that supports a lifting of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, labeled the decision to call off the gathering a mistake.
''Both governments need to show a little more maturity and move toward better relations,'' McGovern said..
Herald translator Renato Perez contributed to this report, which was supplemented with Herald wire services.