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Dissidents organize May 20 gathering, posing big dilemma for Castro regime.

With the advent of spring, two showdowns are rapidly converging--one in Geneva, the other in Havana--in the midst of considerable media coverage.

The first is the annual political and diplomatic maneuvering at the UN Human Rights Commission. The second is an attempt by opposition groups to hold an unprecedented anti-government conference May 20 in Havana.

Cuban officials are tackling the first challenge with great fanfare, but the second is being kept at its lowest possible profile, at least so far.

The showdown in Geneva seems quite favorable for the Cuban government. From Havana's point of view, the situation is similar or better than in 1998, when the annual U.S.-sponsored resolution condemning human rights violations in Cuba was rejected by a vote of 19-16.

Cuba claims that the fact Washington submitted a draft resolution to the UNHCR by itself calling for a special rapporteur to monitor the island "shows that the Bush administration has failed this time to find countries to play the role of sponsors or co-sponsors of its anti-Cuban political gamble, as it did in the past with the Czech Republic, Costa Rica and Peru, among others."

Indeed, political changes throughout Latin America are, for the most part, very much supportive of Cuba's claims. The six-month conditional change of heart by the European Union vis-a-vis Cuba is another significant gain that will affect the final vote in Geneva, especially among Latin American countries.

Meanwhile, Cuba's foreign affairs minister, Felipe Perez Roque, has conducted a successful tour throughout various EU member states and has held "fruitful" discussions with a high-ranking British delegation. London has actively supported the Spanish position, which favors "constructive engagement" with the regime.

The other showdown is much more complex, to say the least.

Three prominent Cuban opposition figures--Martha Beatriz Roque, Felix Bonne Carcasses and Rene Gomez Manzano--have formed an organization called the Assembly to Promote a Civil Society (APSC in Spanish).

Recently, this group announced it would hold a conference in Havana on May 20--Cuban Independence Day--at which 350 organizations will be represented by 110 delegates. Half of these delegates are to come from overseas, most of them from Miami.

Among groups invited to the Havana gathering are the Cuban American National Foundation and the right-wing Cuban Liberty Council, which was started by former CANF executives who claimed that the CANF, under the leadership of Jorge Mas Santos, was getting soft on Castro.

APSC leaders have also invited scores of world political leaders including Mikhail Gorbachev, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, as well as members of parliament from across Latin America and Europe.

Organizers are relying on a vast network of websites, media coverage and fund-raising activities throughout South Florida, Mexico City and Madrid. The Miami Herald has already lent its editorial support to the conference, though few believe it will take place--and almost no one expects the Cuban government to issue visas to members of the CANF, let alone the Cuban Liberty Council.


Official U.S. support for the May 20 event is not surprising, given that APSC leaders are regular visitors to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. They attend regular meetings with Jim Cason, Washington's top diplomat in Havana, and their groups have received some $29 million in funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to testimony by Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Latin America.

During a rare telephone hookup arranged by the U.S. Interests Section, all three figures voiced their total and absolute support for President Bush's anti-Cuba policies.

"We support what you are doing there [in Washington], because we have a lot of people suffering in jail," Roque told the congressional panel from Havana. "We need democracy."

Last November, opposition leaders and others took part in a mock election to participate in the U.S. elections. Such activities undermined whatever credibility they may claim, among EU and Latin American audiences, and among many Cubans as well.

Relations between APSC leaders and Oswaldo Paya, leader of the Christian Liberation Movement, are bitter. Paya has been working for more than a year on his Dialogo Nacional--a project that foresees bringing down Cuba's existing power structure. But he emphasizes that this should be achieved through peaceful means and dialogue with Communist Party and government officials.

"Transition will be decided first by Cubans living in Cuba. This is not a pie to be shared out," Paya has stressed, adding that APSC leaders, along with their cohorts in Miami, are engaged in a "systematic, permanent, and very aggressive" campaign against his Christian Liberation Movement.

Paya has received some support from Cuban exiles in Miami and Madrid, such as Jose Basulto of Brothers to the Rescue, Ramon S. Sanchez of Democracia Movement, and Carlos A. Montaner. At the beginning, CANF supported Paya as well, but that group is now trying to play both sides.

At any rate, Paya, along with 14 other leaders, has already stated that he will not support the May 20 conerence.

Both he and human rights advocate Elizardo Sanchez have criticized APSC's close association with the U.S. Interests Section and extremist organizations in Miami, as well as with Cuban-American lawmakers.

Two years ago, Paya himself--along with officials of Cuba's Catholic Church--repeatedly urged Cason to stop his "recruiting" activities. That was just before the mass arrests of 75 individuals who had connections with Cason during the U.S. diplomat's famous 6,000-mile tour throughout Cuba.


Generally speaking, opposition leaders who are not funded by the State Department and uphold an independent stance--people like Manuel Cuesta Morua and his Arco Progresista, and Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo and his Cambio Cubano--deplore APSC and its leaders' support of the White House.

"It seems as if these people are trying to undermine the opposition's prestige," said Gutierrez Menoyo, who spent many years in exile in Miami and now lives in Havana, awaiting the chance to establish his own opposition political party.

Adds Wayne Smith, a retired U.S. diplomat and well-known critic of the Bush administration: "Providing funding to dissidents at a time when the U.S. government says that its objective is to bring down the Cuban government is to turn the dissidents into subversive agents. It's a colossal mistake."

Meanwhile, Cuban authorities are caught in a bind. They know that an open clash with APSC could jeopardize Cuba's already shaky record on human rights, as was the case with the Concilio Cubano conference in 1994, and the dissident crackdown two years ago.

For Castro and his agents, the dilemma then is how to outwit, outmaneuver and neutralize the May 20 conference in Havana without resorting to violence.

Under existing Cuban laws, APSC leaders could go to jail for actively supporting Bush's policies and actions, and for accepting U.S. funds, but so far, nothing has happened.


On Mar. 17, Adam Ereli, deputy spokesman at the U.S. State Department, issued this statement marking the second anniversary of Cuba's 2003 crackdown on dissent:

Two years ago, the Castro regime unleashed a sweeping crackdown on independent civil society activists, condemning 75 to prison sentences averaging 20 years. The regime has so far only released 14 prisoners, all of whom were in poor health and continue to be subject to daily harassment, re-arrest and lengthy interrogations by the secret police.

The regime continues to hold at least 300 other political prisoners and persecutes anyone who dares speak out against it. For almost half a century, the Cuban government has steadfastly refused to allow any kind of political opening or accord Cubans those most basic human rights recognized by the Universal Declaration.

The United States and others in the international community will not remain silent before such repression. We will not allow these champions of human rights to be forgotten nor let their courageous action in the pursuit of freedom be in vain.

The United States seeks a rapid and peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba, and supports all Cubans who seek this outcome. Only a Cuba that respects fundamental freedoms and independent civil society can make this transition.

Two years after this terrible act of repression, we again call upon the Castro regime to free all political prisoners. The Cuban people deserve a government committed to democracy and the full observance of human rights.
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Author:Amuchastegui, Domingo
Geographic Code:5CUBA
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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