No Space for Dissent

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Monday, April 28, 2008

IN THE PAST few weeks, Cuban President Raúl Castro has introduced a handful of micro-reforms to the oppressive and bankrupt regime left behind by his brother. Cubans are now officially allowed to buy cellphones, computers and microwave ovens; state workers may get deeds to apartments they have been renting for decades; and farmers may be able to sell part of what they grow at market prices. The measures won't have much impact (though they have evidently annoyed the officially retired Fidel Castro): The vast majority of Cubans can't afford to buy electronic goods, and the agricultural reforms fall short of steps taken years ago by North Korea.

The new leader's moves have nevertheless touched off a flurry of excitement and speculation among Cuba-watchers in the United States and Europe, some of whom have taken to comparing the 76-year-old Raúl Castro to Mikhail Gorbachev. European apologists for the Castro dictatorship, led by the Spanish government, are clamoring for the European Union to restore normal diplomatic ties with Havana; Democrats such as Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) have renewed their calls for a lifting of the U.S. trade embargo, even as they campaign against free trade with democratic Colombia.

Unsurprisingly, such Cuba buffs haven't had much to say about another signal Mr. Castro sent last week after the Women in White approached his office in Havana's Revolution Square. About 10 members of the group gathered in a park at the edge of the square, saying they wanted to talk to the new president about their family members -- independent journalists, intellectuals and political activists who were abruptly arrested and sentenced to long prison sentences five years ago during Cuba's "Black Spring." Fifty-five of the 75 dissidents rounded up then remain imprisoned, along with some 175 other political prisoners.

The women were not able to talk to Mr. Castro. Instead he dispatched police and scores of party thugs to the park to rough them up and hustle them into a bus. State media followed up with a propaganda campaign against the women, sporting the usual slogans. "There will be no space in Cuba," said the state newspaper Granma, "for adversaries, fifth columnists or internal mercenaries."

Yes, any Cuban who can spare a year's worth of the average salary may now buy and activate a cellphone. But there's little indication that Mr. Castro intends even the sort of change that has transformed formerly communist countries such as China and Vietnam into more prosperous dictatorships, much less a political opening. Here's a fair test: Let Mr. Castro respect the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights his government recently signed, which guarantees not only freedom of assembly but the right to freely leave the country. Cuban officials recently hinted that the current ban on foreign travel by average citizens might be changed; let it be removed. Then Mr. Castro can discover just how many of Cuba's 11 million people are willing to go on enduring a regime whose idea of reform is permitting the sale of microwave ovens.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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