Caught between Iraq and a hard-line place

Just like President Castro said, you're either with us or you're against us. In his latest big move in the 44-year-long chess match that is U.S.-Cuban relations, the comandante en jefe ordered the arrests of about 80 dissidents for, among other things, meeting with the top enemy's chief diplomat: the head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, James Cason. In Cuba such meetings are tantamount to conspiring with the enemy. In a word, treason. That's not far from the rationale the United States Justice Department used when it recently put five of Castro's spies in solitary confinement under Special Administrative Measures, or SAMs. SAMs keep prisoners who are loyal to a foreign government from acting on behalf of that government while in the slammer. The agents, who Cuba says were in South Florida to monitor exiles who might be plotting terrorist attacks targeting the Castro regime, are serving from fifteen years to life in prison.

Indeed a statement released by Castro's office on March 19 and published in the government newspaper Granma suggests a new maxim for understanding Cuban political economy: It's the spies, stupid. Cason's meetings, the statement charged, were part of the Bush administration's "hostile and aggressive policy toward our country, with the close cooperation and support of the terrorist Mafia and the extreme right in the United States." The statement then declared that "popular indignation" was growing in Cuba over the "cowardly and cruel form of vengeance" U.S. authorities were taking against the five.

But tit-for-tat diplomacy aside, how would it look for a revolutionary government to be disciplining its own errant citizens while sitting down to discuss reconciliation with several hundred Cubans from South Florida? Fairly confounding. Whatever the motive, last Friday Cuba's Ministry of External Affairs (MINREX) postponed the first major encounter between Cuban expatriates and Cuban officials since 1995.

Steve Satterwhite
After making it safe for dialogueros in Miami, Alfredo Duran and Silvia Wilhelm must wait for Havana and Washington to settle down
Steve Satterwhite
After making it safe for dialogueros in Miami, Alfredo Duran and Silvia Wilhelm must wait for Havana and Washington to settle down

Had history taken a different course such encounters might have become commonplace by now. But when Castro ordered a Cuban MiG pilot to destroy two Brothers to the Rescue planes in February 1996, he killed four pro-democracy activists and shattered a fragile diplomatic rapprochement occurring between Washington and Havana. It wasn't until a year ago that MINREX officials contacted Cuban expatriates to begin planning the Third Meeting of the Nation and Emigration. As of this month MINREX had invited about 700 people from 59 countries (though most reside in the United States). The dialogueros, as Miami's pro-violence, anti-Castro activists long ago dubbed anyone espousing negotiations with Cuba, would be traveling to Havana with unprecedented support from Cuban-American public opinion. The cancellation came just one week before the April 11-13 event was scheduled to begin.

MINREX, in a written statement explaining the decision, cited the international tension caused by the war against Iraq and "the deterioration of relations between Cuba and the United States, as a result of the increase in hostility and provocations against our country." Further atmospheric agitation was "the complex situation created by ... the violent hijacking of Cuban planes and vessels to emigrate illegally to the United States." The hijackings, the statement noted, were "a direct consequence of the incentive created by the Cuban Adjustment Act." That is the federal law that grants U.S. residency to Cuban nationals if they make it to American soil. (Those intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba.)

Nonetheless, the statement continued, the Cuban government remains committed to fomenting "a fuller and more direct exchange" between Cubans abroad and Cuban authorities, as well as more "normal" and "fluid" relations between émigrés and Cuba. It concluded with an almost sentimental appeal for Cubans inside and outside Cuba "to work together for independence, social justice, and the well-being of the homeland." A new date for the conference has not been set.

One controversial issue dialogueros had planned to raise was elimination of the visas Cuba requires for Cuban expatriates who travel there and of the exit permits for Cubans residing on the island. "I think Fidel is scared," speculated one dialoguera attending the first Miami/New York Latin Funk Festival this past weekend. Scared that emotions provoked by the crackdown on dissidents might spill into the convention center hallways, she imagined. She also suggested the comandante probably didn't want the exit visa proposal on the table at a time when desires to leave were so strong that exit by hijacking seemed to be making a comeback. Six men armed with knives commandeered a Cuban DC-3 Aerotaxi to Key West on March 19. A Cuban man with what turned out to be fake grenades hijacked a Cubana de Aviación plane to Key West on March 31. And two men with guns hijacked a ferry boat in Havana Bay on April 2. "Every time there is a little opening, he slams it shut," the dialoguera complained.

Max Lesnik, the 71-year-old founder of Alianza Martiana and director of Radio-Miami.com, thinks the cancellation decision was understandable. He had planned to go with about 60 members of his group, which he describes as "an umbrella organization" of conservatives, liberals, social democrats, socialists, and independents. The group's current president, Jorge Zayas, published the newspaper El Avance Criollo until Castro's upstart revolutionary government closed it down in 1960. What unites them is their opposition to the U.S. embargo on Cuba. "The Alianza Martiana is based in the political thought of José Martí, which transcends ideologies," explains Lesnik, who calls himself a social democrat. "That is, Martí was a pro-independence Cuban who favored Cuba's sovereignty from Spain and the United States in the Nineteenth Century."

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