Desde Dentro de Cuba.

Distribuido por Cuba Free Press, Inc. -

May 3, 1999.

A SWISS WATCH RUNS OVER HAVANA, or A BITTER DRINK NAMED "GINEBRA" By Iván García, Cuba Free Press (as translated by a volunteer).

(Translator's note: The Cuban author's title uses a word game; the word "Ginebra" in "Un trago amargo llamado Ginebra" (A bitter drink named Geneva) is Spanish for both the liquor called "gin" in English and the city in Switzerland. It loses its wit when translated, but the English word "watch" can also mean different things.)

HAVANA - The government of the biggest island in the West Indies has taken offense. After the Pope's visit in January 1998, much of the world tried to create a climate of decreased tension for Cuba. This tolerance made it possible possible to arrange a truce with Havana in Geneva in 1998 after six consecutive years of accusations.

On that '98 occasion in Geneva in the spring with 19 votes on its side and 16 against it, the island was acquitted in the annual windstorm that takes place yearly in the U.N. Commission of Human Rights. The joy in Havana did not last long.

The breeze from the Vatican has dissipated and, certainly, the regime has not done anything to make the world believe that individual freedoms are respected here. It did quite the contrary.

Maybe inebriated by the diplomatic successes of '98 (John Paul II's visit, the '98 victory in Geneva, integration in the Convention of Lomé, announcement that the IX Ibero-American Summit would be in Havana and the coming 1999 visit by the king and queen of Spain), the Cuban chiefs thought they could get away unpunished in setting up a repression machine against the peaceful opposition people and the writers of the free press.

The year 1999 had a hot start. On Feb. 15, when nobody was expecting it, the Cuban legislators approved a law meant as an antidote for the U.S. Helms-Burton law. The new Cuban law is called the "Law for the Protection of the National Independence and the Economy of Cuba" (or Law 88 of 1999). And it resembles its northern counterpart in the diabolical character of a judicial stunt. Much of the world has opposed the Cuban law just as it opposed the Helms-Burton law.

But Havana covered its ears and went ahead. Beside adopting Law 88 of '99, under which an independent dissident or journalist can be sentenced to 20 years in jail, the authorities on March 1 held a long-awaited trial to sentence four members of the Working Group of the Internal Dissidence. The security measures taken during the trial were extreme - as if it were a trial against a band of Sicilian mafiosi rather than against four simple dissidents, all over the age of 50.

Since before March 1, dozens of opponents and independent reporters and human rights activists have been 'busted' or placed under house arrest in order to prevent their presence in the vicinity of the court building in the neighborhood of Marianao on the outskirts of the capital. By proceeding this way, the Cuban government failed to take advantage of its only opportunity to send the world a signal of tolerance in reciprocity for what the world was offering Cuba.

Vladimiro Roca, Martha Beatriz Roque, Félix Bonne and René Gómez Manzano ended up sentenced from three and a half to five years in prison for the crime of public dissent and for having written, among other things, a document entitled "The motherland is for us all." Their daring behavior was not forgiven by the Cuban leaders. The world was able to see the step backward that Havana was taking on the subject of human rights.

And as if that step back were not enough, the national media attacked the four opponents mercilessly. The attacks backfired; they came back against them like boomerangs. If before, the four were hardly known inside the country from then on their countrymen placed them in the ranks of the courageous. Cubans disapprove of sending professionals to prison when they are approaching the third segment of life simply for verbally opposing the regime.

But it is already known: Democracy is a pending school subject in Cuba. Hence the bitter taste of this drink of "ginebra." In Switzerland they sent Cuba a bill for its behavior, particularly during the first trimester of the year.

The local outcry has been big. The official press describes the Swiss vote as "a pyrrhic Yankee victory after shameful pressure by the United States to impose an anti-Cuban resolution."

Opinions have certainly polarized during these 40 years of confrontation between the United States and Cuba. The quota of blame of the Cuban government must also be recognized. The systematic repression of those who dare to dissent publicly is real. To do journalism without a government permit is a serious violation of law. Besides, U.S. politics and manipulations in Geneva, Cuba should recognize that it is far from being a paradise in the subject of human rights.

The nation's leaders are trying to convince the international public opinion that condemning Cuba is a mistake but they cannot convince anybody. It is not an easy task; the media are all controlled by the Communist Party and their credibility with the people is null. "The people" is suspicious of anything these media publish, with that inborn predisposition to mistrust that is nurtured by the knowledge that the press is subjected to supervision and censorship by the state.

Cuba Free Press asked 50 people if they believe what is said in the media and 40 answered "no." One of those interviewed offered this summary statement: "But as Castro knows well, we have no other choice but to read it or listen to it."

Iván García, Cuba Free Press.

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