Cuban courts handed down heavy sentences of up to 28 years in the first weeks of April, after authorities arrested scores of government critics in a crackdown on what they deemed subversive activities. According to the unofficial Cuban Commission on Human Rights and Reconciliation led by veteran human rights activist Elizardo Sánchez, among the arrested were at least 75 independent journalists, pro-democracy activists, owners of private lending libraries and leaders of opposition political parties. The government accuses the dissidents of conspiring with U.S. Interests Section Chief James Cason, the top-ranking U.S. diplomat on the island.
On April 2, a hijacked ferry carrying 50 passengers ran out of gas on its way to Florida. After towing the boat back to Havana, Cuban authorities stormed the ferry and freed the hostages. Three of the captured hijackers were executed nine days later. The ferry incident was the most recent of three hijacking plots. Cuban officials blame the weak prosecution of hijackers who reach the United States for prompting the surge in “terrorist activities.” After the hijackings, Cason urged Cubans on national television to not attempt hijackings as they would be prosecuted and not allowed to seek U.S. residency.
The arrests and executions coincided with the U.N. Commission on Human Rights’ review of Cuba’s rights record. The commission voted against a U.S.-backed resolution to condemn Cuba, and instead, adopted a milder version asking the government to allow U.N. human rights monitors on the island.
Critics from diverse political perspectives have condemned Cason for provoking the crackdown by courting dissidents and publicly referring to them as the future political leaders of the country. Cason has criticized the government in comments to the international press and openly assisted opposition groups.
Rachel Farley, Program Officer for Cuba at the Washington Office on Latin America, condemned the arrests, but in reference to Cason’s actions Farley called on the U.S. government to “reduce tensions” that result in the arrest of dissidents.
Despite the arrests, many of Cuba’s most outspoken and high-profile dissidents remain free including Sánchez; Vladimiro Roca, son of the late Cuban Communist Party founder Blas Roca; and Oswaldo Payá, organizer of the Varela Project. The Varela Project is a petition with 11,000 signatures asking the government for a referendum on political and economic reforms.
Interviewed before the sentencing, former U.S. Interests Section Chief Wayne Smith criticized “Cason’s ‘bull in a china shop’ tactics as provoking the arrests,” he added however, that the crackdown was “an overreaction on the part of the Cuban government.”
Meanwhile, ten members of the U.S. Senate created an informal “Cuba Working Group” on March 21, in a bipartisan effort to end travel restrictions and the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. The House of Representatives already has a similar group.
The creation of the working group comes amid increasingly tense relations between Cuba and the United States. According to Smith, “the current escalation of tensions doesn’t help” recent moves by U.S. lawmakers to ease trade and travel restrictions. Cuba’s inclusion to the European Union’s Cotonou agreement, an economic assistance pact including 78 African, Caribbean and Pacific nations, is also uncertain.
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