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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Base In Puerto Rico Supplies Secret Anti-Castro Network
By Matthew Hay Brown
August 1, 2002
QUOTE: 'We hope to broaden the base of dissidents, give them a voice and help them to communicate not only with the outside world but each other.'
Joe Garcia, Executive director of Cuban American National Foundation
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- A powerful anti-Castro lobbying group has begun using Puerto Rico and other areas in Latin America as bases from which to send direct aid to dissidents in Cuba, opening a new phase in its decadeslong effort to topple the communist dictator.
Hoping to nurture what it sees as a growing democracy movement, the Cuban American National Foundation has sent about $1 million in computers, communications equipment and cash to a secret network that now includes contacts in every province of the island nation, executive director Joe García said.?
The Miami-based foundation also has spirited dissidents out of Cuba for meetings and training sessions in third countries, García said.
"We are trying to promote civil society," García said. "We hope to broaden the base of dissidents, give them a voice and help them to communicate not only with the outside world but each other -- which is a big problem in Cuba."
The effort, which began quietly last year, marks a new direction for the 21-year-old organization. For years, the foundation focused its time and money on Washington, lobbying to maintain the U.S. embargo and urging against diplomatic openings to Havana while Cuban President Fidel Castro remained in power.
But with President Bush vowing in the face of congressional pressure to maintain the economic blockade, the 75-year-old Castro showing signs of mortality and a pro-democracy movement within Cuba apparently gaining confidence, the foundation now is turning its attention southward.
"We're at a critical stage," said San Juan attorney Carlos A. García Pérez, a foundation board member. "We're seeing leaders inside Cuba coming out and saying, 'We want free speech; we want freedom.' It's critical at this point that we support that movement."
Petitions a challenge
In May, Havana engineer Oswaldo Paya delivered to the National Assembly a letter signed by 11,200 Cubans calling for free elections and other democratic reforms -- an unprecedented challenge to the one-party state.
Castro responded to Paya's Project Varela with a petition drive of his own, setting up 100,000 stations throughout the island to gather 8 million signatures -- 99 percent of the electorate in a nation of 11 million -- in support of a constitutional amendment declaring Cuban socialism "untouchable" and "eternal."
That he bothered shows he is concerned, said Dan Erikson, director of the Cuba Project at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C., policy forum.
"Almost anyone would say that the democracy movement in Cuba is demonstrably stronger now than at any point in the past," Erikson said.
"That said, it's still incredibly weak. It really doesn't have an organizational structure, and it tends to be fractured. The state makes it so difficult for people to organize, and the risks are so high."
Freedom of expression, assembly and movement remain "strictly limited" under Cuban law, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2002. Those who challenge the government face harassment, dismissal from employment and, in some cases, prosecution.
The foundation effort comes as Castro, his nation in recession, attempts to court ordinary Americans with what Vicki Huddleston, head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, has called "a charm offensive."
Since Sept. 11, the Cuban leader has spoken against terrorism and has not opposed the detention of prisoners from the Afghanistan war at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo. He allowed the uncensored, live television broadcast in which former President Carter called for democratic reforms and told Cubans about the Varela Project.
He attended a Fourth of July celebration in Havana to honor the "noble American people." And during ceremonies to celebrate the 43rd anniversary of the 1959 revolution that brought him to power, he praised the "determination and courage" of U.S. lawmakers who voted last week to lift sanctions on Cuba.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted to stop enforcing the 40-year-old travel ban that makes it illegal for most Americans to visit the island. Saying the embargo had inflicted suffering on the Cuban people and deprived U.S. businesses of trade while failing to move Castro, House members also voted to make it easier to ship food and medicine to Cuba and to lift the limit on money Cuban-Americans may send to relatives on the island.
The measure is now before the Senate, but President Bush has vowed to veto it.
García said the foundation is confident the embargo remains secure, enabling it to focus on Cuba.
He offered few details on aid to dissidents.
Base in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is one of several staging grounds in Latin America for shipments that include fax machines and books to a dissident network that numbers in the hundreds. The foundation's contacts include members of the government and the military.
"Part of what's necessary is speaking the language of the average Cuban," García said. "The foundation is focusing much more on internal debate. We are aware of what's going on in Cuba like we've never been aware before. We know the people in Cuba are going to play a key role in the transition process."
Foundation members in Puerto Rico have launched an electronic newsletter sent weekly to 3,000 e-mail addresses in Cuba. El Pitirre, named for a small Cuban finch with a reputation for feistiness, carries both unsigned dispatches filed by correspondents on the island and wire stories from the outside world.
"We've been involved in a battle of ideas with the Castro regime," García Pérez says. "People in Cuba have a right to know the facts and the truth."
Erikson says those working from outside the island may face a credibility problem.
"Castro likes to point at these individuals and say these aren't real Cubans, they're tools of the CIA, the U.S. government or the gusanos [worms] in Miami," he said. "The challenge for the Cuban American National Foundation and other groups is to find ways to support dissidents in ways that don't undermine them."
García dismissed the concern.
"That's classic Fidel Castro," he said. "Regardless of what you do, he is always going to blame the ills of the nation on someone else. If we're going to worry about giving Fidel excuses, nothing happens. If we don't do anything, these people will be crushed."