Cold War dissidents take on Castro

Posted in Latin America | 02-Oct-03 | Author: Francis Harris| Source: The Telegraph (UK)

Three former political prisoners who became presidents are demanding a unified Western approach to Cuba.

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The heroes of Eastern Europe's anti-communist movement denounced Fidel Castro's "Stalinist" regime in Cuba and demanded action from the West to encourage its peaceful overthrow.

Lech Walesa, the former Polish president, Vaclav Havel, the former Czechoslovak president, and Arpad Goncz, the former Hungarian president, made their call in a letter to The Daily Telegraph and other leading newspapers abroad. The letter from men who were themselves victims of communist oppression will bring a furious response from the Cuban regime. It is acutely sensitive to attacks from countries which were once its closest allies. Over the past decade, it has responded to criticism by organising the beating and arrest of central European diplomats, journalists and MPs on the island.

Writing six months to the day after the regime sentenced 75 opposition figures to lengthy terms of imprisonment, the three men described Castro's regime as weak and desperate, but condemned current European Union and American policy as a failure. In particular, they said Europe's "constructive engagement" with the regime was failing to change Castro's behaviour. "Europe ought to make it unambiguously clear that Fidel Castro is a dictator, and that for democratic countries a dictatorship cannot become a partner until it commences of process of political liberalisation," they said. Spain and Italy have invested heavily in the island's tourist industry and are now responsible for 20 per cent of Cuba's foreign trade. But relations are at a low ebb following Castro's verbal assault on the EU after it criticised his jailing of dissidents.

The Walesa-Havel-Goncz letter also attacked the United States trade embargo, which many critics say has allowed Castro to shift responsibility for the acute privations suffered by ordinary people. Instead, the former political prisoners ask Europe and the United States to seek a common policy to pressure the Cubans. "It is the responsibility of the democratic world to support representatives of the Cuban opposition, irrespective of how long the Cuban Stalinists manage to cling to power," they write. The West is urged to step up its condemnation of Cuba's human rights abuses in the same way it did in Eastern Europe during the Cold War and to ram the point home with unified diplomatic steps. The communist state is already in trouble, the authors say: "The regime is running short of breath - just like the party rulers in the Iron Curtain countries did at the end of the 1980s. . . The times are changing, the revolution is ageing with its leaders, the regime is nervous."

The Cubans have a particular dislike for Mr Havel, who has devoted considerable effort to whipping up support for Cuban dissidents. In 1990, Cubans stormed the Czechoslovak embassy and took hostage several diplomats in apparent protest at the new tone from Prague. The letter comes at a difficult time for the Cuban authorities. The island is suffering harsh economic downturn and growing discontent. Last year, "Project Varela" drew 11,000 signatures seeking to activate a provision in the Cuban constitution allowing a referendum on the introduction of political freedoms. It was one of the biggest popular acts of dissent since the communists took power in 1958. Despite the regime's fierce response, the anti-Castro movement continues to thrive. Earlier this week, a coalition of dissident groups unveiled a proposal seeking broad human and economic freedoms after consulting more than 35,000 Cubans across the island. The seven-page "Letter of Fundamental Rights and Responsibilities of Cubans", sought a number of basic freedoms, including the right to leave the country without government permission, to own property, to own a business and to choose an employer. The document will eventually be presented to Cuba's parliament and to the communist party central committee. This time, however, those taking part chose not to give their names and addresses. But the West has failed to agree a unified policy to exploit Cuba's troubles. The Europeans have encouraged dialogue with Castro, but Washington has maintained its decades-old embargo and the Bush administration has recently considered strengthening it. United States diplomats have been heavily engaged in encouraging the dissident movement, giving computers, radios and cash to pro-democracy figures. Some Europeans have argued that this merely makes dissidents vulnerable to the accusation that they are United States stooges.

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The letter from Vaclav Havel, Arpad Göncz and Lech Walesa is a particularly telling attack on the Cuban dictatorship. The signatories are former presidents, respectively, of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, and each played a determining role in freeing his country from the Soviet yoke. They believe that the Stalinist regime in Havana is running short of breath, and call on the United States, Europe and Latin America to step up diplomatic pressure on it. The Europeans, they argue, should establish a "Cuban Democracy Fund" to support the emergence of a civil society. The occasion for their letter is the imprisonment six months ago of 75 members of the Cuban opposition, most of them involved in the Varela project. This produced a petition, signed by more than 11,000 people and presented to the National Assembly, demanding freedom of association, freedom of expression, the release of political prisoners, free enterprise and free elections. Those detained received sentences averaging 20 years. Subsequently, three men who had hijacked a ferry in an attempt to flee the island were executed by firing squad. The crackdown was, predictably, condemned in Washington. But it also incensed European countries, which have long argued that constructive engagement is preferable to the 40-year American embargo. The EU reduced high-level government visits and participation in cultural events in Cuba, promised to forge closer contacts with dissidents and put on hold Havana's request to join the Cotonou Agreement, a preferential trade pact with 78 developing countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Neither embargo nor engagement has broken Fidel Castro's hold over Cuba. During a period when Latin America's polity has changed dramatically, that should give both the US and the EU pause for thought. The difference between their views, though narrowed by fiercer oppression in Havana, has still to be bridged. But that should not stop them from combining in condemnation of dictatorship. There is still a tendency in Europe to regard "Fidel" as the romantic hero of the Sierra Maestra. In fact, while posing as David to America's Goliath, he is a bully who has dismally failed his people. The east European provenance of our three correspondents suggests that a comparison with a Soviet leader such as Leonid Brezhnev would be more apt.