August 27, 1999

The Americas

A Brave Hunger Striker

Threatens Castro's Big Show

By Michael N. Zarin, regional program director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute in Washington.

Cuban patriot Marta Beatriz Roque, imprisoned for her role in writing "The Homeland Belongs to All," today completes the sixth week of a liquids-only hunger strike. As her health rapidly deteriorates and she defiantly vows to intensify her protest, this brave defense of freedom of expression is damaging Fidel Castro's international campaign for political legitimacy. Her death would deal it an even greater blow.

The Castro charm offensive seemed to score a major victory when Cuba was selected last year to host the ninth annual Ibero-American summit in November; these summits bring together the heads of state of Latin American countries and Spain and Portugal. But winning this high-profile event is looking less and less like a political coup for Castro. Several invited guests have said they may not attend in protest against Cuba's latest crackdown on political activism. High on their list of objections is the imprisonment of Ms. Roque and her co-authors.

Why is Castro putting his big public relations prize at risk? Because he values stability and control at home more than international prestige and a growing internal pro-freedom movement is forcing him to choose between the two.

After Pope John Paul II's January 1998 visit to the island, Castro sought to balance two contradictory objectives. On the one hand he wanted to continue to make it clear that he is the unchallenged leader of the Cuban people. On the other, he saw some need to respond to the international community's insistence that he improve his human-rights record. During much of 1998, he actually gave the second goal some precedence, modifying his repressive tactics against pro-freedom activists.

The freedom movement took advantage of the opportunity. As detailed in Steps to Freedom 1998, published jointly by the International Republican Institute and the Miami-based Cuban Democratic Revolutionary Directorate, acts of civic resistance have more than doubled since 1997, have spread from seven to all 14 Cuban provinces and have advanced in sophistication.

This year's crackdown has done little to suppress the activism. Starting in June the pro-freedom forces organized a nationwide fast in which protestors demanded a general amnesty for political prisoners and respect for human rights. The 40-day fast--one day for each year of Castro's tyranny--was not limited to a handful of Havana participants, as was reported in the mainstream media. Rather it included thousands of ordinary Cuban citizens across the country. Their demands largely coincide with those of the still expanding Mothers' Movement for a General Amnesty, which is collecting thousands of signatures on a petition calling for an amnesty for political prisoners and the elimination of the "political crimes" category from the country's penal code.

Another significant development is the growth of the independent library movement, which has established 21 libraries in private homes. In the founders' words, these libraries exist "to promote reading not only as an act of receiving knowledge, but as a means of formulating and expressing free individual opinion, without censorship or subordination to a specific creed." The small independent farmers' movement--which seeks to sell its own goods freely--is also growing, as is an incipient pro-life campaign, led by the Havana based Lawton Foundation for Human Rights. There also has been a strong growth in the number of strikes in support of social, economic or work-related demands. In approximately 75% of these cases, the government has been compelled to negotiate with the strikers, suggesting that the regime is determined not to allow such disputes to get out of hand.

The pro-freedom movement has evolved to include social and professional associations. In addition to the National Alliance of Independent Farmers, these groups include the Institute for Culture and Democracy--an intellectual freedom forum--and the Independent Brotherhood of the Cuban Blind--advocating that group's needs. Nearly one-third of civic actions reported since the beginning of 1998 have involved more than one organization. Cooperation across geographic lines is also on the rise, as evidenced by the 23 organizations in nine provinces that participated in activities commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1998.

Walking the line between international charm and domestic repression, Castro's response has been mixed. In a speech to 5,000 National Revolutionary Police officers earlier this year, Castro said increased crime rates were linked to political dissidence and that failure to repress both would have "internal political consequences" for the Revolution. In March, the government adopted a draconian law that makes cooperating with foreign journalists a crime.

However high a priority the regime places on stability though, it appears to be seeking a sort of middle ground on which it can repress Cuba's most significant pro-freedom elements but still not lose too much international support in the process. Consider how the March closed trials of Ms. Roque and her co-authors were handled. The state rounded up approximately 100 activists to prevent them from demonstrating outside the courtroom, but quickly released most of them after the one-day trial. Rather than imprisoning the activists, as is the norm, it confined most of them to house arrest. Instead of one massive sweep, the regime progressively detained more and more activists as the first few arrests failed to deter the activities of the others.

Castro is attempting other measures. He recently initiated a recruitment drive featuring higher salaries to enlist more young people into his security forces. But the Union of Communist Youth complained publicly when few youths responded. To counter the independent library movement, the government opened a community library of its own in Las Tunas, the town where the independent movement originated. And earlier this week, the government raided the founding chapter, carted away the library's collection, and detained the two founders.

The Cuban dictator faces a dilemma: ease up on the pro-freedom movement to gain international support; or continue the crackdown to maintain control at home. Thus far, his actions favor the latter, which shows how effective the homegrown movement has become. Ms. Roque's defiance may lead to her death, but her martyrdom could exact a high cost from Castro too, going well beyond the embarrassment he will suffer if his Ibero-American summit flops.

Copyright 1999 Wall Street Journal