Cuba's climate of paranoia
Castro's spies may have infiltrated Cuban opposition
From Lucia Newman
HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) -- When 75 Cuban dissidents were tried in early April on charges of treason for conspiring with the United States, the biggest surprise wasn't the common verdict -- guilty -- but rather the identity of the prosecution's witnesses.
Until that day, Odilia Collazo was one of Cuba's best-known dissidents, her name recognized by human rights activists around the world.
As founder and president of the outlawed Human Rights Party, she was a counterrevolutionary mercenary, according to Cuba's communist government, and a tireless freedom fighter in the eyes of government opponents.
No wonder many were shocked during the trial of dissident Hector Palacios, a leader of the reformist Varela Project, when Collazo turned out to be someone else.
"Today I can tell the world that I am really an agent, Agent Tania," Collazo told the court.
The trials, held April 3-7 in courtrooms across Cuba, were part of the harshest crackdown on dissidents in decades, one that has drawn criticism from governments and human rights groups around the world.
Most of them lasted only a few hours, including sentencing to prison terms ranging from six to 28 years. The U.S. State Department condemned the trials as "kangaroo courts," and Human Rights Watch called the sentences "totally unjustified."
The crackdown began March 18, as the world waited for the war in Iraq to begin, with the arrests of journalists, opposition party leaders, human rights advocates and pro-democracy activists.
They were charged with being on Washington's payroll and collaborating with James Cason, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, and other U.S. diplomats to subvert Cuba's communist system. Cason and the U.S. State Department denied the allegations.
Sending a message
When longtime dissident and economist Marta Beatriz Roque was tried, the main witness against her was none other than her No. 1 confidante, Aleida Godinez, aka Agent Vilma.
"No, she never suspected," said Godinez, who had been associated with dissidents since 1994. She sometimes worked as an independent journalist and was a leader of the Assembly for the Promotion of Civil Society, a reformist coalition.
"In fact, I can tell you that on March 11, she even gave me the password to her private e-mail, because she had total confidence in me."
Four days after the dissident trials, three of the 10 people who attempted to hijack a ferry to the United States were executed by a firing squad after being convicted of terrorism. The incident followed the hijackings of two planes to Key West, Florida.
The executions brought another round of criticism, since no one was harmed in the ferry hijacking.
But President Fidel Castro said in an April 26 televised speech that anyone attempting such actions should expect the same treatment, and blamed the executions and dissent crackdown on a conspiracy between Cuban exiles in Miami and the U.S. government.
Who can Cubans trust?
In most Western nations, spying on fellow citizens is considered shameful. But Cuba's government argues that accumulating information on those it sees as enemies is a legitimate form of self-defense -- a weapon it has been using since Fidel Castro took power 44 years ago.
Take the case of Jesus Yanez Peretier.
In his youth, he was Castro's ever-smiling aide-de-camp -- the man credited with saving his life years earlier by disobeying orders to poison Castro in prison.
By the time he died more than two years ago, he was one of Cuba's oldest and best-known dissidents, having tirelessly denounced communism for three decades.
"He was very loved and respected within the opposition movement. People saw him as a kind of teacher, a guide," said his widow, Maria de los Angeles Menendez.
But who was the real Jesus Yanez?
Yanez's widow recalls her shock when she visited his grave to lay flowers on the first anniversary of his death.
Already there was a delegation of state intelligence officers with a wreath of their own, paying tribute to Yanez as a secret government agent who all along had been a spy for them in the opposition movement.
"It was so absurd, so crude and so unexpected," Menendez said. "When I saw it, I tried to stop it, but they wouldn't let me."
Was this just more mind games to divide the opposition further? Or was it, as Yanez's son from an earlier marriage claims, a posthumous tribute to an unrecognized hero of the revolution?
"To do what he did, to be branded before the family, one had to have very strong convictions, one had to be very brave. That's why I don't feel betrayed. I feel proud," Jesus Yanez Jr. said.
Yanez Jr. supports the government. He said his father let him know he was really an agent years before his death, but he can offer no proof.
Some of Yanez's former dissident colleagues dismiss the whole thing as a typical KGB-style hoax. But others, even those closest to Yanez, will not categorically call his graveside reincarnation a lie.
"I will not presume it is true, because that would be falling into the trap and the confusion that the government is trying to create," said Oswaldo Paya, who in 2002 was awarded the European Union's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought for his work as a co-organizer of the Varela Project.
"If it's true, then expose openly what Yanez did in public as well as in the shadows."