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Since becoming principal officer at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana in September 2002, James Cason has increased official U.S. connections with Cuban dissidents. Entering directly into Cuba domestic politics, Cason helped launch the youth wing of the dissident Partido Liberal Cubano. Nowhere in the world, said Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, would it be legal for a foreigner to participate in the formation of a political party. In October 2002, Cason invited a group of dissidents to meet with U.S. newspaper editors at his residence in Havana. Although it has become routine for heads of the U.S. mission to seek out dissidents, it was unusual to meet them at home.
Feb. 24 of this year, he participated in a meeting of the dissident Assembly for the Promotion of Civil Society at the home of prominent dissident Marta Beatriz Roque. Also present at the meeting were several reporters to whom Cason repeated his criticisms of President Fidel Castro’s government and reaffirmed U.S. support for dissidents.
Cason organized two other such meetings at his residence in March even after receiving a formal complaint from the Foreign Ministry.
In a recent television interview in Miami, Cason said the help he gave dissidents was “moral and spiritual” in nature. But, according to the testimony of several Cuban security agents who infiltrated the organizations that received U.S. support, the Interests Section became a general headquarters and office space for dissidents. Some of them, including Marta Beatriz Roque, had passes signed by Cason that allowed them free access to the Interests Section where they could use computers, telephones, and office machines.
The State Department calls these activities “outreach.” However, under the United States Code, similar “outreach” by a foreign diplomat in the United States could result in criminal prosecution and a 10-year prison sentence for anyone “who agrees to operate within the United States subject to the direction or control of a foreign government or official (Title 18, section 951 of the United States Code).
On March 4, Castro warned that Cuba might close the Interests Section. “Cuba can easily do without this office, an incubator for counterrevolutionaries and a command post for the most offensive subversive actions against our country,” he said. In April, the Foreign Ministry sent the United States government a note saying the government was forced to act against the dissidents due to the “declared purpose” of the United States to overthrow the government of Cuba.
On March 18, the government began rounding up dissidents including members of Oswaldo Paya’s Varela Project–though not Paya–independent journalists, and several leading dissidents such as Martha Beatriz Roque. Sentences handed down ranged from six to 28 years. The formal charge against most of the defendants was crimes against the “independence or territorial integrity of the state.”
In an April 9 news conference, Foreign Minister Perez Roque gave Cuba’s explanation for the arrests. “We have run out of patience with Mr. Cason and his irresponsible actions. He is the person most responsible for what has occurred.”
That was the short explanation. In the exhaustive presentation that followed, Perez Roque made the case that the Bush administration had radically increased hostility toward Cuba to destabilize its government.
The much-praised Varela Project is an especially interesting case. According to the documents Perez Roque presented at the news conference, the Varela Project referendum was financed by the United States and organized with the help of Carlos Alberto Montaner, a Cuban exile based in Spain, assisted by Spanish officials.
In a letter in 2001 to Osvaldo Alfonso, one of those arrested, Montaner mentioned money sent to Cuba to underwrite the project and said, “Very soon, some high-level Spanish friends will call you to talk about the Varela Project.” Montaner suggested several people, including Paya, to help set up the project.
Arrests condemned as crackdown on rights
The arrests generated nearly universal condemnation. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States was “outraged,” and Secretary of State Colin Powell demanded that Cuba release the “prisoners of conscience.” Neither Boucher nor Powell explained away the evidence that the dissidents were paid agents of the United States.
The Cuban government has always maintained that dissidents are created and funded by the U.S. government. Under that rationale, Cuban law makes collaboration with U.S. policy, especially the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, a criminal offense punishable with lengthy prison terms. In 1997, the National Assembly passed the Reaffirmation of Cuban Dignity and Sovereignty Law as an “antidote” for Helms-Burton, and in 1999, the Protection of Cuban National Independence Law, which criminalized any act of cooperation with U.S. policy toward Cuba. These laws are similar to U.S. laws governing activities of unregistered agents of foreign governments. Evidence supporting the Cuban claim that dissidents are mercenaries of the United States is available on U.S. government Web sites. The Web site of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) lists recipients of U.S. funds to support dissidents, independent journalists, independent librarians, and human rights organizations in Cuba.
For example, in 2000, USAID gave US$670,000 to three organizations to support “the publication abroad of the work of independent journalists from the island…and to distribute their writings within Cuba” (USAID report, Evaluation of the USAID Cuba Program, 2001).
The State Department’s 2003 review of the Cuba Program, set up to carry out the regime change directive in the Helms-Burton Act, notes that the Cuba Dissidence Task Group “was created to support the activities of dissident groups in Cuba,” especially the Group of Four–the group led by Marta Beatriz Roque. The task group received a US$250,000 grant in 1999.
US$280,000 went to the Cuba Free Press between 1998 and 2000, for “giving voice to independent journalists and writers inside Cuba.”
CubaNet, which operates out of Miami, posts the work of independent journalists on its Web site. Florida International University, another USAID grantee, works with CubaNet to translate articles written by dissident journalists into English, French, and German. CubaNet received US$343,000 up through 1997.
U.S. admits/denies it funds dissidents USAID official Adolfo Franco said earlier this year that the agency had spent US$20 million dollar carrying out Helms-Burton mandates since 1997. Nevertheless, another USAID official, Alfonso Aguilar, denied that the agency funded dissidents, though he claimed it was legal to do so. He admitted that USAID gives money to nongovernmental organizations that in turn pay dissidents. But he argued that Perez Roque’s accusations were “outrageous,” because the payments did not come directly from the U.S. government.
Despite the implied USAID principal that indirect payments are a legitimate means to fund internal opposition in sovereign countries, the State Department said Perez Roque’s accusation that the United States fabricated Cuban dissidence was “ludicrous.”
Part of the case against Hector Palacios, a Varela Project supporter sentenced to a 25-year prison term, was that he had received US$3,000 in remittances from organizations in the United States as well as computers and other equipment donated by the Interests Section. Investigators found US$5,000 in cash hidden in a medicine bottle in his house. Another of the prominent writers arrested was Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who received a 20-year sentence. Interviewed on the Pacifica network’s radio program Democracy Now (04/09/03), Miriam Leyva, Espinosa Chepe’s wife, denied he had collaborated with the United States. She said he had only received US$15 per article from CubaNet in Miami. During the April 9 news conference, Foreign Minister Perez Roque displayed receipts indicating that Espinosa Chepe had received US$7,154 in such payments during 2002. At US$15 per article, Espinosa Chepe would have had to sell 477 articles or 10 every week that year. Perez Roque said that investigators found US$13,660 in Espinosa Chepe’s closet and that he had not held a job in 10 years.
Dissidents were often paid with U.S. funds channeled through a Canadian bank. The bank allows Cubans to access U.S.-supplied funds with a Transcard (debit card).
Bush’s new initiative and the Cuba crackdown
Almost without exception, media reports and editorials said Castro had taken advantage of the Iraq war to order the crackdown on dissent.
That interpretation, however, fails to consider the current context or the long history of U.S. attempts to overthrow the Cuban government. Indeed, the current crisis, like others, has been treated in the media as just another random act arising from Castro’s character flaws and having no connection with any relevant historical event.
Nevertheless, the current crisis may be said to have its origins in President George W. Bush’s new-initiative statement. In a May 20, 2002, speech in Miami, billed as an “initiative for a new Cuba,” Bush restated U.S. hard-line policy and proposed increased U.S. government aid to dissidents. There seemed to be nothing really new in it, but the Cuban government took it as a new threat, especially since the speech came a few days after State Department official John Bolton announced that Cuba was producing and transferring biological-weapons technology to terrorist states.
Since the Bush speech, the United State has paid increasing attention to the Varela referendum, which essentially proposes a reformist approach to the elimination of the revolutionary state and economy. Administration officials denied there were any new elements in the speech and talked about relying on dissent in Cuba instead of direct outside pressure to bring down the regime.
After he accepted the European Union (EU) Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought last December for leading the Varela referendum, Paya made a triumphal tour that included a stop in Washington where he was cordially received by Secretary Powell. In Miami, he won support from the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). During the same period, CANF formally embraced the strategy of working for Castro’s overthrow through dissidents, outraging other hard-liners who support more aggressive actions from the U.S.
However, if one takes the Varela Project to be a covert U.S. operation, the shift toward reliance on domestic dissidents ushered in by the speech would appear to be the start of an aggressive campaign spearheaded by the Interests Section–Bush’s “final solution” to the Cuba “problem.”
Castro responded to the Varela referendum with a constitutional amendment making socialism in Cuba “irrevocable.” While seen in the United States as a crude attempt to block the referendum, its timing and intensity indicated it was Castro’s answer to Bush’s initiative for a new Cuba.
Announcement of the initiative came four months after Bush declared his radical foreign-policy doctrine, The National Security Strategy of the United States. Cuban officials cite the doctrine as an additional threat to Cuba because it announces “a comprehensive strategy” to promote a global free-trade economy.
More menacingly, it asserts the right of unilateral, preemptive war against states that support terrorists or are believed to have weapons of mass destruction. Since the State Department is on record declaring Cuba as a state with bioweapons technology, and continues to count Cuba as one of the states promoting terrorism along with Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria, the new strategy logically leaves Cuba open to military intervention at the discretion of the president. Under this doctrine, U.S. military forces will be perpetually dominant and may operate outside international sanctions. They “will be “strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States,” and, “will not be impaired by the potential for investigations, inquiry, or prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose jurisdiction does not extend to Americans and which we do not accept.”
One Cuban official told Wayne Smith, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section, “This new preemptive-strike policy of yours puts us in a new ball game, and in that new game, we must make it clear that we can’t be pushed around.”
Cuba in revolt against National Security Strategy
Aside from the immediate background to the crackdown in Cuba, there is the matter of the U.S. initiative in the Middle East. It is striking how similar the scenario for Iraq is to U.S. policy for the transformation of Cuba: identifying the target country with weapons of mass destruction and terrorism; calling for regime change; selecting exiles to form interim governments; U.S. control of those governments during the period of “transition”; arrogation to the president the power to determine when a democratically elected government is in place; and the rectification of economic structures in the target country to conform to free-market principals, which have already been defined as coterminous with democracy. A case could be made that Cuba’s decision to obliterate the internal dissident organizations and their links to the United States, marks Cuba as the first country to openly revolt against Bush’s post-9/11 doctrines.
ROBERT SANDELS writes about Cuba and Latin America for the Latin America Database at the University of New Mexico and other publications.. He received a B.A. in Spanish literature in 1958 from the University of the Americas in Mexico City. He also received an M.A. in American history in 1962 and a Ph.D in Latin American history in 1967 from the University of Oregon. He has taught at Chico State University in California, at San Francisco State University, and at Quinnipiac College in Connecticut. He can be reached at: email@example.com