Since March 18, 2003 seventy-eight persons in Cuba have been arrested by the authorities, charged and tried. They include independent journalists, organisers of the Varela Project (a petition for a referendum on legal reform which seeks greater personal, political and economic freedoms) and pro-democracy members of illegal opposition parties. The trials were held in improvised courts and lasted one day. A Reuters report indicates that undercover agents who had infiltrated the dissident groups gave evidence. Human rights groups described the trials as a throwback to Stalinism. Severe sentences were handed down, one as long as 28 years. A statement from the Ministry of Justice said the dissidents were jailed for mercenary activity and other acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state. In 1999 a law had been passed providing severe sentences for passing information to the United States that could be used to bolster anti-Cuban measures such as the US embargo. The law also bans the ownership, distribution or reproduction of what it describes as subversive materials from the US government. The authorities said dissidents had been plotting with US diplomats to subvert the state.
Many in the Caribbean who do not share President Castro’s ideology and who believe in an open society have nevertheless had enormous sympathy for the Cuban revolution. Fidel Castro has been admired for the achievements of his government in the field of education and health. But more than that, he was seen to have tried to chart an independent course after he took power in 1959 and though this had in fact pushed him into a dependant relationship with the Soviet Union this was understood as a predicament that at that time faced all the countries in the region, the dilemma of trying to steer an independent course between the Scylla of the American eagle and the Charybdis of the Russian bear.
So democrats in the region swallowed their qualms about the failure of the government to liberalise the social and political situation, to hold elections and to respect human rights.
But the maintaining of a one party state after 43 years in power and the resulting restrictions on basic human freedoms have been very hard to bear and these latest acts of repression are intolerable. The Varela Project, led by Oswald Paya Sardinas of the Christian Liberation Movement collected the 10,000 signatures constitutionally required to hold a referendum in Cuba. The legal reforms sought by the group are to introduce freedoms taken for granted in all democratic countries in the Caribbean, and elsewhere. Paya has received widespread recognition for his work in the international community and also received the prestigious human rights award, the Sakharov Prize, from the European Union. He has not been arrested but members of his organisation have been. The immediate cause of the roundup seems to have been that James Cason, the head of the US Interests Section in Havana based at the Swiss Embassy allowed a group of journalists to use his official residence for a meeting. He had also visited opposition members around the island. That may be seen as somewhat provocative in the Cuban context though it has been quite normal for human rights groups in the Caribbean to seek overseas assistance of one kind or another in the past. But sensitive or not it cannot possibly justify the arrests, charges and imprisonment that have taken place recently.
We condemn this attack on independent journalists and others seeking rights of speech and assembly and other human rights freedoms. Moreover, we do not believe Caricom governments should turn a blind eye to human rights abuses of this kind by a regional colleague. Regrettably, they have done so before, as all Guyanese well remember. The dissidents had only three days to appeal. Caricom should add its voice to criticisms from governments and human rights groups of this authoritarian behaviour.