Campaign News | Thursday, 17 July 2003




Cuba under threat

The ideological and political onslaught against Cuba following the arrest of some 70 dissidents and the execution of three hijackers in April has continued throughout the summer. This briefing explains the reasons for Cuba’s actions and provides information about the response in the EU and US that points to a new phase in the 43 year US war against the revolution.

1. Cuba is defending itself

The key to understanding the current crisis in relations with Cuba lies in the activities of James Cason, Head of the US Interest Section in Havana, who since taking office last September has been co-ordinating so-called dissidents to organise themselves into a united opposition party. He has distributed money and equipment, such as radios and computers to so-called dissidents throughout the island and carried on this activity even after repeated warnings that he was in breach of his diplomatic status.

In addition to this provocative activity by the chief US diplomat, the Cuban authorities faced an escalation in terrorist activities such as the hijacking of planes and ferries by gangs and individuals seeking to migrate illegally to the US. These hijackings were not seen as wholly coincidental with the activities of Cason. The Cuban government is accusing the US of instigating these hijackings through not issuing their agreed quota of legal migration visas and through treating too leniently those who make it to the US by illegal means.

The Cuban government takes the view that the US has been involved in conspiracy with far-right Miami Cubans to provoke a crisis of such proportions that may lead to an armed confrontation between Cuba and the United States. In an interview on May 11, Fidel Castro made it clear that the measures taken by his government were a matter of life or death for the Revolution. Kevin Whitaker, head of the Cuba desk of the US State Department, had warned Cuba officially that another plane hijack would be regarded as a threat to the security of the United States.

It is in this context that the Cuban authorities, using existing legislation and constitutional principles, decided to try the three ferry hijackers and apply the death penalty as stipulated in Cuban law. The other 8 hijackers received long jail sentences, except for the two women accomplices who received jail sentences of 2 and 5 years.

2. The arrests

It is a fact rarely mentioned in the western media and willfully ignored by governments in Europe that these dissidents were not tried for their political beliefs. They were tried for treason – accepting money from an enemy power – under the Law of Protection of National Independence passed in 1999. The ‘dissidents’ were sentenced to terms fluctuating between 6 and 28 years. All accused had the right to name a defense attorney and those who did not were assigned a professional lawyer much as in courts in the US; none was subjected to torture or humiliation; all hearings were public and they were attended by about 3,000 people, including the relatives of the accused. In June, the Cuban Supreme Court heard the appeals against sentence of the so-called dissidents and upheld the sentences. The contrast with the treatment given to prisoners in the Guantanamo base could not be more stark.

Some of the accused had special passes for unrestricted entry to the US Office of Interest in Havana; one of them had US$13,500 in his pockets, another had US$5,000 in a jar at home - they could not explain the origin of these monies.

Felipe Pérez Roque, Cuban foreign affairs minister, in a press conference of April 9, 2003, gave ample evidence of the US financing of subversive activities against the Cuban state with the purpose of assisting in creating the conditions for a military confrontation with the United States. Pérez Roque claimed that the Agency for International Development, an official US government body, had stated that $22 million represented "just a tiny part of the funds channelled to Cuba," which he claimed supported "subversion" in Cuba. AID records show that from 1996 to 2001, the agency provided $12 million to 22 groups to promote peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba. And although Adolfo Franco, assistant administrator for the Agency for International Development, who is in charge of the Latin American and Caribbean bureau, denied Roque’s allegations, he did acknowledge that AID finances programs to promote democracy in Cuba through various private groups, including major organisations in Miami (read the Cuban American National Foundation - CANF). Such activities would carry jail sentences for treason in any country in the world, including the US.

No country in the world tolerates or labels domestic citizens paid by and working for a foreign power to act for its imperial interests as “dissidents”. This is especially true of the U.S. where under Title 18, Section 951 of the U.S. Code, “anyone who agrees to operate within the United States subject to the direction or control of a foreign government or official would be subjected to criminal prosecution and a 10 - year prison sentence”.

The evidence in the trial came from 12 double agents who had infiltrated the organisations of the accused. The Cuban government has now published the personal accounts of these agents in a book called “The Dissidents”.

3. Is the EU and US moving towards a common position ?

What is astonishing for objective observers is the way in which the evidence about Cason and the so-called dissidents has been so willfully ignored by European politicians who have joined in the campaign demonising the Cuban government.

In the House of Lords on June 16, in a debate on Cuba policy instigated by Lord Colin Moynihan, the UK government spokesperson, Baroness Crawley, claimed that the Cuban view was so preposterous that it would be a waste of time refuting it. In Spain, the Government of Jose Maria Aznar has gone further and organised a seminar on Cuba to which representatives of the Miami right were invited along with the former Czech president Vaclav Havel. The Czech government has announced that it is going to hold high-level talks in Miami with the Miami leadership to discuss way to bring about ‘transition’ in Cuba.

All of this has the effect of making the Cuban government even more suspicious that there is an orchestrated campaign aimed at turning world public opinion against Cuba as a prelude to military action.

Now it is emerging that there is a concerted effort from some European governments (Britain, Spain, the Czech Republic and Italy are chief culprits) to come to some kind of agreement with the US over they way to deal with Cuba. This coincides with noises being made by CANF in Miami that they, too, see this as the best way of dealing with the island. The possibility is now arising that the US, Canada and Europe will agree to ‘multilateralise’ the embargo. Recently, the US Special Envoy on Western Hemisphere Affairs, Otto Reich, when asked about whether the EU and US are closer after recent events, told the Spanish national daily newspaper, El Pais: “politically speaking it can be seen that there is a rapprochement”. He also noted that the Helms Burton Law “has not been that important”. The US, he said, believed that military measures were not necessary. “The tactic is to weaken the Government with information and diplomatic restrictions but to increase contact with the people through the media.”

The suggestion is that after the next US Presidential election, the administration might then respond to business lobbies in the Congress by gradually ending the failed 40 year old Embargo. Such a move, it is argued, would end US differences with its allies, encourage support for alternative voices in Cuba, offer opportunity to US business and challenge Cuba to change its political system.

4. CANF lobbies Europe

In the US, the vice-president of CANF, Dennis Hayes, recently said that the EU should “play an important role in the democratic transition in Cuba, and we hope they will work with us.” Here is what CANF is proposing:

1. For EU embassies to offer unrestricted internet access to Cuban citizens, distribute print and electronic materials, host meetings and discussions with dissidents.

2. Invite so-called dissident to Embassy events.

3. EU governments to recall their ambassadors as a sign of protest against further arrests.

4. Host conferences on human rights in Cuba.

5. Limit travel by Cuban diplomats in their countries.

6. Press for Cuban to be removed from the UN Human Rights Committee.

7. Apply economic pressure: freeze grant programmes, call in Cuban debts, seize Cuban assets, refuse new loans and withhold financing arrangements.

8. Tighten up on Cuban tourism by informing their citizens of alleged human rights abuse in Cuba, insist that Cuban tourism workers are paid directly by their employers in hard currency (instead of being employed through a state agency and being paid in Cuban Pesos with hard currency bonuses).

In return for these ‘favours’ CANF is said to have offered the Europeans a permanent waiver or even removal of Titles III and IV of the Helms-Burton Law (these are the aspects of the law that affect the rights of European businessmen in the US who have investments in Cuba).

Already the Spanish and Czech governments have signed up to some of these ideas. How far Britain will go along is to be seen and must be resisted. Certainly, if a European government does any of these things there will be a further deterioration in relations with Cuba as Fidel Castro has already warned the Europeans that inviting so-called dissidents to their embassies will provoke a reaction. This could lead to ambassadors being disciplined for breach of their diplomatic status – possibly even being declared persona non grata. On June 12, 2003, Felipe Roque, Cuban Foreign Affairs Minister, accused the EU of hypocrisy, double standards and coat-tailing to US policies of aggression against Cuba. This was followed by huge demonstrations outside the Spanish and Italian Embassies in Havana attended by more than a million people.

The signs are not good. In early July it was announced that the Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya is to be invited by the European Parliament on an official visit to Strasbourg. After what has happened this will only be interpreted by the government in Havana as a another sign of the EU’s capitulation to the US.

5. A different approach: constructive engagement

There are dissenting voices from this wave of hostility against Cuba in the US. Underscoring a continuing desire among some for closer relations with Cuba was a visit to Havana by Rep. Leonard Boswell, a Democrat from Iowa who headed a delegation of several dozen farm representatives. Boswell announced $4 million in new U.S. farm sales to Cuba and – echoing dozens of other recent American visitors to the island – called for an end to the United States' trade and travel restrictions. In addition food sales to Cuba from the US have continued to increase with the first US cargo ship in 40 years arriving in Havana this July loaded with food.

A similar line of constructive engagement has come out from Britain in an article by Lord Moynihan in The Guardian (July 1, 2003) of which we reproduce key sections below:

“It is time for a radical new approach. Britain should be in the vanguard of encouraging dialogue with Cuba. Increased cooperation through business activity offers us the opportunity to encourage Cuba to take its relationship with Britain and the EU more seriously. There is a sense in many countries that the present Cuban government is in its twilight years and it is only a matter of biding time. Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic need to rid themselves of the misguided notion that Cuba policy is locked in a holding pattern until Fidel Castro is no more, at which time the Cuban people will rise up as one and embrace American culture and influence. It is naive in the extreme to think that in the post-Castro era, Cuba will effectively become the 51st state of the US. Yet that is precisely what many in the US administration and indeed, on this side of the Atlantic, appear to believe.

In fact, the very opposite is likely to happen. Cuban history is marked by a strong and deep-rooted desire for independence, and in the post-Castro era, resistance to US influence and the drug and money-laundering culture which has infected so many Latin and Caribbean nations, is likely to strengthen. Ultimately, it will be the Cuban people who determine its future and British, European and US policy must be formulated in view of this reality.

It would be of great benefit to the British-Cuban relationship if policymakers in London now spent time studying the Cuban psyche, rather than viewing the situation through the unfocused binoculars of American wishful thinking - as unquestionably some in the government, with their strong adherence to the neo-conservative wing of the US administration, are inclined to do. This is a critical time for Cuba. A knee-jerk tendency to shadow US policy threatens to seal up the window of opportunity, just at the very time when Cuba is beginning to recognize the need for further economic reform and a stable political transition to a younger leadership.”

Lord Moynihan is shadow minister for sport and chairman of the UK Cuba Initiative.

In this context the hard line adopted by the British government on Cuba is incomprehensible. Although the government still claims to be in favour of constructive engagement, its approach appears to increasingly be to slavishly support US foreign policy.

6. The response of the intellectuals and others on the left

It is one thing for the governments in Europe to jump on the US bandwagon and condemn Cuba’s self-defence actions, but it is disconcerting to see that there have also been condemnatory statements made by prominent left-wing intellectuals, particularly, Eduardo Galeano, Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, Immanuel Wallerstein and José Saramago. However, many of these intellectuals have since backtracked and have come out in defence of Cuba, such as Chomsky.

Most of those who have criticised Cuba’s defensive action recognise that Cuba has been the target of more terrorist attacks than any other country in the world. Thus far, some 5,000 intellectuals worldwide have signed the manifesto ‘To the conscience of the world’ (A la Conciencia del Mundo), including Alice Walker.


The international order has been violated as a consequence of the invasion against Iraq. A single power is inflicting grave damage to the norms of understanding, debate and mediation amongst countries. This power has invoked a series of unverified reasons in order to justify its invasion. Unilateral action has led to massive loss of civilian life and devastation of one of the cultural patrimonies of humanity. We only possess our moral authority, with which we appeal to world conscience in order to avoid a new violation of the principles, which inform and guide the global community of nations. At this very moment, a strong campaign of destabilization against a Latin American nation has been unleashed. The harassment against Cuba could serve as a pretext for an invasion. Therefore, we call upon citizens and policy makers to uphold the universal principles of national sovereignty, respect of territorial integrity and self-determination, essential to just and peaceful co-existence among nations. Mexico, April 2003.

Chomsky has also signed the statement. Many other prominent intellectuals around the world have come out in defense of Cuba’s right to self-defense even though all of them, as much as we do, are opposed to the death penalty. People such as Rigoberta Menchú, Mario Bendetti, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Adolfo Perez Esquivel.

On May 31, 2003, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Archbishop of Havana and the island's only Roman Catholic cardinal, called for reconciliation among Cuban believers during night conference attended by hundreds of people. In the audience was U.S. Interests Section Chief James Cason. Cardinal Ortega said: "The church's mission is not to be on the side of the opposition," said Ortega, ``In the same way, you cannot ask the church to support the government."

7. The situation in Latin America

The political panorama in Latin America is changing monthly for the better. Not only is there Chavez in Venezuela and Lula in Brazil, Kirchner, not Menem, has been elected president of Argentina and the first manifestation of that has been a rousing welcome to Fidel Castro in Buenos Aires. Brazil has insisted that Cuba be invited to the next summit of Latin American countries to be held in August in Lima. Lula sees no reason for Cuba to be excluded. Toledo, the host, has made similar statements, welcoming the presence of Cuba at the summit, which will be essentially a platform against the FTAA. The invitation to Cuba challenges US efforts to isolate the Caribbean island from inter-American summits. It was announced on July 10th that President Lula will visit Havana ater this year.


It is clear that the international situation vis-a-vis Cuba is in flux. The EU and some EU governments (including Britain) do appear to be moving towards a harder line position. This clearly has something to do with its relationship with Washington and could result in a new policy of multilateral sanctions on Cuba. If the Europeans and the US can come to an agreement to apply multilateral pressure on Cuba, then economic blackmail combined with supporting internal ‘dissidents’ would seem the logical way to try to bring about change in Cuba. We can therefore expect more ideological, direct political and economic threats in the coming weeks. CSC must do all it can to head off any hint that the UK would support any moves to apply sanctions on Cuba. Campaigning work must be to that end. No sanctions on Cuba.

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