Saturday, July 5, 2008

Cuba cracks down, rounds up dissidents before freeing most

July 5, 2008

HAVANA (AFP) — Cuba this week rounded up and detained more than 30 dissidents after accusing the United States of "instigating" opposition to the Communist regime, a top rights activist told AFP Saturday. As many as 35 people were arrested and around 70 targeted in all, but most have now been freed, economist Martha Beatriz Roque of the rights group Agenda for the Transition said. The regime's roundup was aimed at halting a meeting of pro-democracy advocates and clamping down on the dissidents' plan to mark the US Independence Day holiday on July 4th, she said. "Almost all the people arrested have now been freed," she said. Those who were not detained received warnings from the government, were placed under house arrest or barred from traveling to the capital, Havana, she said.

"The objective of the operation was to prevent a meeting of the Agenda group scheduled for Thursday, and to bar them from participating in the celebration of the United States' Fourth of July holiday," Roque said. The Agenda meeting was cancelled and the July 4th party went ahead without incident at the home of Michael Parmly, the US diplomat and chief of mission at the US Interests Section (USIS) in Havana, Roque said. Cuba's communist government has accused the USIS of serving as a "headquarters" for opposition groups, which are banned in Cuba, and says the US funnels money, communications and other forms of support to regime opponents via the Interests Section.

Wednesday, the government of President Raul Castro issued a statement saying acts of dissidence in the streets would not be tolerated and denounced "an escalation" of what it called "warped" opposition that was "instigated" by the US Interests Section. The brief arrests came just days after the European Union decided to formally lift sanctions against Cuba imposed following a 2003 dissident crackdown in the Americas' only one-party communist state. Raul Castro has made no nod to political pluralism, and his economic reforms have been quite limited. Since officially becoming president in February to succeed his ailing brother Fidel, Raul Castro has allowed Cubans to buy computers, own mobile telephones, rent cars and spend nights in hotels previously only accessible to foreigners -- if they can afford such luxuries.

In his latest reform move, he announced last month that the government was scrapping salary caps long meant to underscore egalitarianism but which his administration says hurt productivity. He also has implemented reforms that give farmers better pay and more flexibility to buy farming equipment, a move designed to lessen the impact of the world food crisis. The younger Castro brother, 77, also has commuted 30 death sentences, released some political prisoners, and signed human rights accords. In addition, television has fewer taboos and Granma, the venerable Communist Party mouthpiece, even has taken to publishing grievances from residents. A change on decades-old travel restrictions would be the most momentous to date by his government.

The Spanish daily El Pais cited an unnamed government official in a report in April as saying Raul Castro would give a green light soon to migration reform, simplifying exit and entry permits and ending the requirement for people to get permission to leave the country. In an economically stressed country of more than 11 million people, such a policy change would test Cuba's stability, as the nearby United States grants automatic residency and working rights to all Cubans who reach US soil after fleeing their homeland. Mandatory permits and a passport add hundreds of dollars in travel costs in a country where most workers make about 17 dollars a month. Many critics see the regulations as just short of an effective travel ban for Cuban nationals. Late last month ailing longtime leader Fidel Castro, 81, strongly denied rumors that he is the leader of a faction of hardline Communists disgruntled about reforms introduced in Cuba since his brother Raul succeeded him.

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