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World - Americas

Cuba cracks down on political opponents, common crime

February 17, 1999
Web posted at: 7:45 p.m. EST (0045 GMT)

In this story:

Castro: Laws target 'internal weaknesses'

Independent journalists likely to feel impact

Use of death penalty expanded

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



HAVANA (CNN) -- Cuba's communist leadership has pushed through harsh new penalties to curb internal political opposition and roll back a worrying increase in common crime.

Cuba's National Assembly on Tuesday approved setting prison terms of up to 20 years for political opponents judged to be "collaborating" with the U.S. government's economic embargo policy toward Cuba.

However, the wide, catch-all wording of the measures against "counter-revolutionaries and annexationists" suggested that it could be interpreted to cover any form of criticism of the government, whether it was linked to the United States or not.

A second law directed against common crime introduced the death penalty for some drug-trafficking offenses and life imprisonment for offenses like armed or violent assaults on persons and property.

Castro: Laws aimed at 'internal weaknesses'

President Fidel Castro, explaining the new legislation, said Cuba had the right to defend itself in what he called "this war against the Yankee empire and its servants inside the country." He added: "We are defending a trench in Latin America and the world."

Castro
President Fidel Castro, left, endorses the new hardened legislation against criminal offenses  

Castro said Cuba's enemies, principally the U.S. government, were trying to take advantage of "internal weaknesses" such as crime, which had increased as a result of Cuba's economic opening after the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

The moves were likely to be interpreted by human rights organizations and many foreign governments, even those with friendly ties with Cuba, as a sign of ideological retrenchment by a one-party communist government.

"Things in Cuba hadn't been moving anywhere fast. But this is definitely a step backwards," said one European diplomat.

Cuba's top Roman Catholic church leader on Tuesday expressed concern about the strict new measures for both common and political crimes.

"This is not the way to resolve things," Cardinal Jaime Ortega said of the proposal to expand the use of the death penalty and lengthen prison sentences. "The problem is more than that. It is in our values, in the family, in education."

Of capital punishment, Ortega said, "One bad thing cannot be resolved with another bad thing."

The death penalty was common in the 1960s and 1970s, but has been rare in the past two decades.

Independent journalists likely to feel impact

The anti-subversion law appears to be aimed especially at independent Cuban journalists, many of whom are in regular contact with the U.S. government's Radio Marti, which opposes the Castro government.

Ortega
Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana, expressed concern about the new strict measures  

The measures would ban the introduction of "subversive" materials into the country, along with the importation of equipment designed to disseminate such information. The law also restricts collaboration with the news media if such work furthers the trade embargo, or related U.S. policy toward Cuba.

The crackdown came as an angry response to policy changes announced last month by U.S. President Bill Clinton that would increase contact between the American and Cuban people while maintaining the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Cuban officials were infuriated by Clinton's proposal, which they said did nothing to ease the sanctions. The anti- subversion legislation seeks to penalize all "collaboration" with U.S. policy against Cuba in all its manifestations, including the 1996 Helms-Burton law, "the blockade, the economic war, subversion" and any similar measures that Washington might adopt in the future.

Some diplomats said they were puzzled about why the authorities felt the need to introduce even tougher legislation against opposition. "Cuba is not lacking in catch-all legislation that squashes dissidence," one diplomat said.

He said the aim might be to frighten and intimidate existing and potential opponents, but added: "The flip side is it suggests that the government itself might be frightened."

Use of death penalty expanded

The crackdown on dissidence also comes amid a general toughening throughout Cuba's government. Earlier Tuesday, lawmakers revised the penal code to include the death penalty for government officials who engage in drug trafficking and increased sentences for smugglers of illegal aliens.

The new penal code increases Cuba's longest prison sentence from 20 years to 30 years, lengthens terms for repeat offenders and implements the use of life sentences.

A surge in prostitution, robbery and even more violent offenses has alarmed Cuban officials, who describe the crime wave as the most serious threat to Castro's 40-year-old revolution.

Earlier this year, the government beefed up police patrols around the nation's capital and launched a major police recruitment effort. Hundreds of members of the National Revolutionary Police's new special forces now stand guard in tourist areas that until recently were crowded with prostitutes and hustlers.

Reuters contributed to this report.


RELATED STORIES:
Cuba takes hard line against opposition, crime
February 15, 1999
As crime in Cuba escalates, Castro vows crackdown
January 11, 1999

RELATED SITES:
CIA World Factbook: Cuba
Cuba News - Noticias by CubaNet News.
Cuban American National Foundation
Cuba Web
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