[I wrote this exactly two years ago. Unfortunately, it’s still relevant and grows moreso as Fidel ages and the American regime inclines froggy. I heard an NPR reporter refer to the “crackdown” again the other day. I get so weary of this.]
It is a slightly-dated but persistent myth that the Cuban state undertook a kind of “crackdown” against “dissidents” in the Spring of 2003. There are two elements to the allegation—the jailing of 75 “jounalists, librarians and human rights activists,” on one hand, and on the other, the execution of three ferryboat hijackers. First, the idea that these two phenomena have something to do with one another is a common confusion but it isn’t accurate; the hijackings were committed just as the first sentences were handed down to the 75. We can treat these two issues in turn.
1. Cuban “Dissidents” Jailed?
As to the first element, the jailed “dissidents”: Rather than a “crackdown” on dissent, a lengthy investigation of a unified criminal enterprise came to an end and the parties investigated and prosecuted.
As they brag on their websites, U.S. “democracy-promoting” organizations (like the NED and USAID) had been funneling money to Cuban dissidents for various “regime change” activities for years.
Much of this is illegal in Cuba as it would be in any other country, including the U.S. (Indeed, there are Cubans in American prisons now, charged under US versions of laws of the same broad type.) Cuba has all the ordinary laws “criminalizing actions intended to jeopardize its sovereignty or territorial integrity,” plus “any actions supporting the goals of the U.S. Helms-Burton Act of 1996, i.e., by collecting information to support the embargo or to subvert the government, or for disseminating U.S. government information to undermine the Cuban government.”
The “political prisoners” were caught taking money or other perks to engage in activities described by these laws. Mostly they were working through the US Interests diplomatic headquarters in Cuba, and were caught by the efforts of ordinary Cuban patriots who went undercover as fellow “dissidents,” hiding their secret even from friends and family members, from whom they were often ostracized (until the investigation went public).
You can read about it here. Its a great article by a former high-level CIA operative, Philip Agee, who now lives in Cuba.
As the article states:
“Whatever the amounts of money reaching Cuba may have been, everyone in Cuba working in the various dissident projects knows of U.S. government sponsorship and funding and of the purpose: regime change. Far from being ‘independent’ journalists, ‘idealistic’ human rights activists, ‘legitimate’ advocates for change, or ‘Marian librarians from River City,’ every one of the 75 arrested and convicted was knowingly a participant in U.S. government operations to overthrow the government and install a different, U.S.-favored, political, economic and social order. They knew what they were doing was illegal, they got caught, and they are paying the price. Anyone who thinks they are prisoners of conscience, persecuted for their ideas or speech, or victims of repression, simply fails to see them properly as instruments of a U.S. government that has declared revolutionary Cuba its enemy. They were not convicted for ideas but for paid actions on behalf of a foreign power that has waged a 44-year war of varying degrees of intensity against this country.”
2. Cuba’s Execution of the ‘Baragua’ Boat Hijackers
Turning to the second part of the “crackdown” allegation, the execution of 3 hijackers: First, (a) It is unclear to me why Cuba’s use of the death penalty is perenially more interesting than that of any of the other 100 countries in the world (including the U.S.) that have it on the books. Given this prevalence, it is almost bizarre that this event should have been “world news” for weeks. Especially because Cuba almost never executes anyone. The executions in question actually came after a 3-year moratorium on the death penalty in Cuba. (While the U.S. executes an average of 45 people every year.) So you can fault them on the principle of “no executions whatsoever, at any time, for any reason” but that’s about it.
Second, (b) Cuba is certainly capable—as capable as any other country—of making mistakes in applying the death penalty policy.
This being said: The 2003 hijacking of the “Baragua” was a serious act of international terrorism, as much for the crime as for its context.
The barge was a flat-bottomed pleasure ferry safe only for calm harbor waters. The hijackers, armed with knives and a gun, diverted it to open seas in Force 4 winds—a very, very dangerous move. It was full of passengers (50) including children at the time. They ran the boat out of fuel and threatened (by radio) to start tossing passengers overboard if they weren’t refueled. (Luckily, the Cuban coast guard saved the day.)
The context of this crime is deadly important to assessing the Cuban government’s response. The hijacking was the seventh in seven months, with Cuban security forces investigating another 29 plots “in the works.” This is actually pretty unusual. Cubans fear that any “exodus crisis”—a wave of hijackings, another rafters influx or Mariel exodus—will be used by the U.S. as a pretext for (increased) aggression—more trade sanctions, a naval blockade (such as is periodically threatened), a[nother] land invasion or bombs. This fear is well-founded, as it is regularly raised by U.S. officials: On April 25 of the same year, the chief of the U.S. State Department’s Cuba Bureau informed his (Cuban) counterpart at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington that the US considers “any more hijackings” to be a serious threat to U.S. national security. Military responses were, as always, implied. (This from the administration who speaks of a “final solution” to the Cuban problem and has already effected two military coups in the region in so many years (Venezuela, April, 2002; Haiti, Feb., 2004).) For this reason the Cuban state acted, and quickly, to thwart the hijacking wave that appeared to be looming.
Again, if you are categorically against all capital punishment, you can blame the Cuban state for asking the courts to apply it, along with half the world’s other nations for practicing it. But if you support the right of national self-determination, and view imperialism as its opposite, you can understand Cuba’s decision.