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Lesnik thinks the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba bears much of the blame for the crackdown, and hence the cancellation. "The problem is that everything is escalating, starting with an attitude of open provocation by elements of the opposition when they go to the U.S. Interests Section invited by Mr. Cason," chides Lesnik, who says he has met with Fidel Castro about fifteen times over the years. "In the context of a country like Cuba, which knows that the United States maintains a list of enemies [that includes Cuba], one who visits the embassy of an enemy country is the same kind of traitor Cuba has always had. The government of the United States is using opposition figures inside the island. Cuba looks at that as meddling in its internal affairs and sees the people who do that as foreign agents."
Cuba's top diplomat in the United States didn't meddle when he visited Miami in February, Lesnik counters. "When the chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington came to my house and met with 150 Cubans, he came to talk about the Nation and Emigration [conference]. He didn't come here to say the American system wasn't good," Lesnik huffs. "He didn't come here to incite us to conspire against the American system. He didn't come here to speak ill of the United States or the American system." Interests Sections are supposed to improve relations between governments, Lesnik adds. "I'm not going to say if Cuba's system is good or bad. It's Cuba's system. I'm not going to say if the American system is good or bad.... The American system is a problem for Americans. Not for the Cuban ambassador in the United States."
Other Miamians planning to attend were less accusatory but concurred that this was not a propitious time. "I was glad it was canceled because under this kind of atmosphere ... this [meeting] wasn't going to go anywhere," offers lawyer Antonio Zamora, president of the U.S./Cuba Legal Forum. "It was going to be a waste. I think the conference is a very big thing and should be given proper coverage and proper attention." Zamora is part of the other main Miami contingent that had planned to attend the conference: the 50-member host committee of a symposium called "The Time Is Now to Reassess U.S. Policy Toward Cuba." The event, held at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables on March 28, 2002, marked the first time an anti-embargo, pro-dialogue group had overcome the fear and loathing of hard-line culture and staged a high-profile public event in the geographic heart of el exilio. (See "Heretics in the House," New Times, April 11, 2002.)
Zamora allowed that some invitees probably would have stayed away because of the crackdown on dissidents. He opted not to opine on the arrests, saying he had to travel to Havana this week for a conference that a group of American lawyers had organized to discuss new rules allowing Cuban nationals to receive inheritance money from deceased relatives in the United States. (Previously U.S. law blocked the transfer of inheritance funds.) Zamora had agreed to give a speech on U.S.-Cuba relations, but that was before leaders in Washington and Havana had driven them down to their current volatile nadir. "Just my luck," he sighs. "I thought it was going to be easy. I was going to talk about just a few things. Now that's a hell of a topic. I don't know what I'm going to do."
The Cuban Committee for Democracy, which advocates a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba, issued a statement deploring the actions of both the U.S. and Cuban governments. Several of its members, including CCD founder and Democratic Party activist Alfredo Duran, had planned to attend the conference. The statement said the U.S. Interests Section had engaged in "insurgent and provocatory" actions, while the Castro regime's arrests of dissidents were "a direct violation of the civil rights of Cuban citizens" for expressing their opinion.
The cancellation forced 68-year-old Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo to put on hold his seventeen-year quest for "legal space" for opposition groups. For him a short postponement of the talks was probably just as well; he was recovering from an emergency hernia operation. Gutierrez Menoyo, a guerrilla commander allied with Castro's army in the fight against the Batista dictatorship, spent 22 years in Cuban prisons for opposing Castro's embrace of the Soviet Union. After his release in 1986 he formed the political group Cambio Cubano, which advocates democracy through a peaceful process of dialogue.
Gutierrez Menoyo first demanded legal reforms in a speech at the 1995 meeting and planned to do so again this time, even though MINREX hadn't made any room on the official agenda to discuss reforming Cuba's one-party socialist state. "Legal space," as he envisions it, would allow him to open Cambio Cubano offices across Cuba and begin a legal opposition movement. Without this "legal space," he contends, a truly democratic opposition movement in Cuba cannot enter a "serious stage."
He is following Castro's crackdown carefully. In a New Timesinterview this past January, Gutierrez Menoyo said it wasn't credible that all of the estimated 500 opposition groups inside Cuba were legitimate. "Of those 500 I am certain that there is a huge number created by Cuba and a huge number created by the CIA, or that receive money from here. That's why I say that this phase isn't serious." The Cambio Cubano leader says that during his legal trips to Cuba over the past decade, there have been many traps set by Cuban intelligence agents posing as dissidents to catch him in an illegal conspiracy.