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Testimony Denouncing Cuba's Recent Repression of Dissidents

J. Curtis Struble, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs
Remarks to Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, House International Relations Committee
Washington, DC
April 16, 2003

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for convening this Subcommittee today to discuss the Cuban Government's harsh crackdown against Cuban citizens seeking a peaceful transition to democracy on the island. We are witnessing the most serious act of political repression in the hemisphere in decades. We greatly appreciate the House of Representatives' overwhelming bipartisan support for the freedom-loving Cuban people, as exemplified most recently in passage of House Resolution 179. I'm sure that if the Cuban people could speak freely they would extend to you and your colleagues their thanks for this symbol of support for their aspirations to regain their human rights.

Since March 19, the Cuban government has carried out its most significant act of political repression in decades, arresting over 100 opposition and independent civil society members. Dissidents were imprisoned for writing "counter-revolutionary articles," running independent libraries, and belonging to "illegal" groups of independent journalists.

Poet and journalist Raul Rivero was one of many arrested. Fifty-seven year-old Rivero was sentenced to 20 years for "mercenary activities and other acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the Cuban state."  Following sentencing, his wife lamented to the press, "This is so arbitrary for a man whose only crime was to write what he thinks. What they found on him was a tape recorder, not a grenade."

The Cuban regime has already sentenced more than 75 such peaceful members of Cuba's civil society to lengthy prison terms in secret, summary trials. Castro has long tried to argue that there is no authentic opposition, only that "created" by the U.S. Government working through the United States Interests Section (USINT) in Havana. The regime has sought to blame us for its actions, saying that USINT support for the opposition "provoked" the Cuban regime and crossed "red lines." In fact, USINT's outreach activities are a logical and incremental progression of our contacts with Cuba's growing civil society. Castro's argument asserts arbitrary boundaries that place absurd limitations on the activities of diplomatic personnel.

The real reason that the Cuban security apparatus acted now is because the homegrown opposition is losing its fear of the regime and growing in strength and credibility. Oswaldo Pay's insistence on peaceful change and his use of the right of petition won him support at home and abroad; backing for Project Varela grew exponentially in 2002, and Varela organizers constitute a nationwide political operation. Other civil society groups, such as the "Asamblea" and "Todos Unidos" seek to create nationwide organizations with political reform agendas. The Catholic Church in Cuba spoke out in late February, denouncing the "vengeful state" and attacking the Cuban Government's political, economic, and educational policies. The regime recognized that there was a nascent independent civil society taking shape, and moved to crush it.

The scope and nature of the repression reveals this intent. Pay was not arrested, but his subordinates throughout Cuba were. Prominent independent journalists have been sentenced. Cuba's most prominent independent labor leader, Pedro Pablo Alvares, was given 25 years. The "Asamblea" was left leaderless with the detention and sentencing of Marta Beatriz Roque to 20 years imprisonment. Oscar Elias Biscet, an Afro-Cuban Catholic who advocates peaceful resistance to the regime, received 25 years. This repression goes well beyond the 1996 dismantlement of the "Concilio Cubano" structure. The intimidation factor clearly increased as the regime announced the draconian sentences of up to 28 years. Yet Pay -- whose international stature provides him protection -- has called upon all "people of good will" to let their voices be heard and denounce the repression. Moreover, five other leading human rights activists still at liberty courageously released a communiqu denouncing the Cuban Government's actions.

The Cuban government hoped that world attention would be distracted by the war in Iraq. However, numerous human rights organizations, governments, and media outlets have expressed their condemnation of the repression. You will have noted the Secretary's very strong statement on the arrests of these prisoners of conscience, which followed two earlier Department statements on this act of repression.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights raised the arrests with the Cuban Foreign Minister. The EU denounced the detentions and termed those sentenced "prisoners of conscience." A number of governments in this hemisphere, including Mexico, Canada, Chile, and Nicaragua, have also condemned these acts. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a statement calling for a halt to the "wave of repression." A similar statement by the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) expressed concern over this "serious infringement of rights."

The Cuban decision to initiate this crackdown just as the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) was getting underway in Geneva underscores the Castro regime's complete disregard for human rights and fundamental freedoms. However, this is nothing new. The Government of Cuba has yet to accept a visit from the Personal Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights -- a visit called for in last year's UNCHR Cuba resolution. We are hopeful that the international community will once again condemn the human rights situation in Cuba by adopting a 2003 UNCHR Cuba resolution, again calling on the Government of Cuba to accept a visit by the High Commissioner's Personal Representative for Cuba.

For our part, we continue to execute the President's policy of encouraging a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba. Our work with truly independent Cuban civil society helped us move toward that goal. Castro's repression will not change our focus or diminish our energy. The President outlined a flexible and innovative new policy in 2002, his Initiative for a New Cuba. This Initiative presents the Cuban regime with a challenge to undertake political and economic reforms. Should such reforms be enacted, the Administration is prepared to work with Congress to change the embargo and the travel restrictions. Unfortunately, Castro's reaction was the most sweeping repression of peaceful dissent in Cuba in decades. Our dedication to helping the Cuban people remains undiminished.

Mr. Chairman, I would like to end my testimony with a question, one that admittedly I can't answer. Perhaps the representatives of the Cuban Interests Section, who I suspect are here today witnessing and ironically participating in the democratic process that the Castro regime denies to its own people, can answer it.

What is the Castro regime afraid of? Perhaps it is the fear of its own demise? Or fear of its international isolation? Or perhaps fear of facing and admitting to its own failures? Or fear of the realization that as with all bankrupt dictatorships, the Cuban regime is sliding into historical irrelevance?

This is a question that ultimately I cannot answer. However, there is one thing that I am sure of, Mr. Chairman. The Cuban people have lost their fear of the repressive apparatus that is the Cuban regime. They are not afraid, and they will continue their work. And the United States will stand with them, working toward a common goal: a rapid, peaceful transition to a democratic and free Cuba.


Released on April 16, 2003

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