Castro's calculated crackdown

It seems that every time there is a glimmer of a chance that there might be an American opening towards Cuba, or increased engagement with the island, Fidel Castro does something to scuttle it.

A coalition of mostly conservative farm-state members of Congress had just begun to press for an end to the embargo. Several recent polls showed that a majority of the normally hard-line Cuban exiles in Miami had begun to support dissidents on the island and favor engagement with the Cuban government; many were going to attend now-postponed reconciliation talks in Havana. Yet Castro decided to embrace international isolation again by rounding up close to 80 non-violent political dissidents and summarily sentencing them to an average 20 years in prison each, as well as execute three men who tried to hijack a Havana ferry to American shores. How stupid can this man be?

Not stupid at all.

Castro understands that an end to the embargo and the travel ban means that his island citadel would soon be flooded with American goods and visitors–both spreading the gospel of capitalism and freedom. No embargo would also mean no convenient excuse for why his economy is in shambles. Despite his rhetoric, Castro has never wanted the American embargo to end.

Castro also sees the danger in the exiles’ changing attitudes. There’s an old saying in Spanish that a dog that barks doesn’t bite. As long as Cubans in the echo chamber that is Miami continued to vociferously denounce any exile who favored engagement–while doing nothing more themselves to topple the regime than bawl on the radio–Castro had nothing to worry about. The embargo, after all, is still in place in spite of the U.S.’s best economic interests because of the loud Cuban lobby. If they were to change their tune and begin to support dissidents on the island who are actually doing something to change the regime–albeit slowly and within corrupt institutions–it might spell disaster for him. Castro couldn’t allow it.

Pundits and editorial pages have pointed out that Castro slyly unleashed this latest wave of Stalinist repression when the world’s attention was on the war in Iraq, implying that he didn’t want anyone to notice. But his timing was more subtle and clever than that. Of course he would prefer to keep this bit of news from so many in the world who are convinced by his unctuousness, but he calculated that there were some–including the exile community and Congress–who would take note no matter what. He meant this message for their ears.

Sure enough, exile opposition groups reacted on cue. For example, the Cuban Liberty Council–a group that separated from the Cuban American National Foundation after CANF began to dull its hard-line stance–sent a message to President Bush asking for the suspension of remittances and all travel to Cuba and imposition of multilateral sanctions on the island. Some have called for the closing of the American interest section in Havana, the U.S.’s only diplomatic link to the island. The “Cuba Working Group” in Congress was put in disarray, and the “Nation and Emigration” conference was called off.

This result only benefits the Cuban regime while it punishes the Cuban and American people. Cubans benefit from more American and exile engagement–culturally, politically and economically. And if for no other reason, Americans should be opposed to the embargo because it is an affront to their liberty. A truly free people aren’t told by their government to where they can and can’t travel, to whom they can and can’t sell their cars and corn.

We must resist the temptation to respond hastily to the sickening sight of one-day, closed door, sham trials of people accused of nothing more than writing, or keeping libraries, or simply thinking aloud. Castro is not the least bit stupid. He expects to outrage us into self-flagellation. Don’t fall for his ruse.

Jerry Brito is editor of Brainwash and a student at George Mason University School of Law. His Web site is jerrybrito.com.

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