Cuban security agents punctured Robin Meyer's tires. They videotaped her meetings. They followed her everywhere, even to lunch with a visiting cousin. They sometimes arrested people who went to see her. Finally, they threw her out of Cuba.
Meyer, a U.S. foreign service officer, was assigned to the U.S. mission in Havana. Her job was human rights: establishing contact with Cuban dissident groups, distributing books and magazines, monitoring Cuban government restrictions on the liberty of Cuban citizens. She wrote the section on Cuba in the State Department's annual worldwide human rights survey -- the chapter that begins, "Cuba is a totalitarian state."
By Meyer's account -- confirmed by State Department colleagues and independent human rights monitors -- the government of Fidel Castro took a dim view of these activities and set out to make her task as difficult as possible.
Security agents confiscated books and documents she provided to Cuban citizens. They threatened not only people who talked to her but their families and their neighbors. And on one tense occasion, they tried to ram her car with their old Soviet-built Lada on a main Havana boulevard.
The punctured tires were a special nuisance, she said, because "it never was just one tire, it was always two. I had one spare tire but I didn't have two."
"I don't think it was me personally," Meyer said in an interview. "I think it was anyone who was in contact with human rights activists. . . . It's kind of an all-out effort to keep dissidents isolated and keep international public opinion from knowing what is going on."
Meyer, 39, is a mid-level foreign service officer. U.S. diplomats of her rank rarely give interviews, but she was encouraged to do so by senior State Department officials irked by the farewell tributes collected by Jose Luis Ponce, the Cuban diplomat expelled by the United States in August in retaliation for Cuba's ouster of Meyer.
Senior officials said they were especially irritated by a comment Ponce made in The Washington Post regarding the tit-for-tat expulsions, in which he said, "There's no way you can compare what she was doing there to what I do here. She was intervening in Cuban affairs. My role has been to try to open lines of communication and lessen tensions."
"There's something I would like to say about that," Meyer said. "I was just thinking how almost funny it was. He was opening lines of communication, in a country were all the lines of communication are open to him. If he wants to have a meeting with a congressman he calls and goes over, or a university professor. . . . The situation in Havana is quite different. All of our meetings had to be approved by the Cuban government," and many of her requests were turned down, she said.
The United States has no diplomatic relations with Cuba. Each country is represented in the other's capital by an "interests section," nominally under the flag of a third country. Meyer, who is fluent in Spanish, was assigned to the U.S. interests section in Havana in 1994, just as relations with Cuba were entering a particularly rocky period. She has been in the foreign service since 1988; Havana was her second foreign posting, after a stint in Sao Paulo.
The nature of her assignment virtually guaranteed that the Cubans would find her an irritant.
"The Cuban government is extremely uncomfortable with human rights monitoring," said Sara Decosse, who studies Cuba for the independent group Human Rights Watch. "It became clear that the Cuban government was watching her quite closely."
What the Cubans saw was a U.S. diplomat who maintained regular contact with Cuba's beleaguered dissidents, providing them with Spanish-language copies of the Miami Herald and books such as "Animal Farm," relaying information from them to Radio Marti and Amnesty International and interviewing participants in protest demonstrations.
These activities were riskier for the Cuban participants than for her, Meyer said, because she was protected from arrest by diplomatic immunity.
Any Cuban who joins an opposition group "knows there's a risk," Meyer said. "The first thing that will happen is you lose your job. That's a way to marginalize you. Your family members can lose their jobs too. Then they start visiting your neighbors and start threatening them. . . . It effectively marginalizes and isolates people, and of course makes them more fearful of having contact with you."
According to Meyer, she was under more or less constant scrutiny from Cuban security agents who were often menacing as they hovered over her, filming every meeting, but sometimes laughable in their ineptitude.
On one occasion, she said, she and her visiting cousin were having lunch in a seaside restaurant that requires payment in hard currency, which her Cuban watchdogs -- one in a U.S. Marines T-shirt, the other in Chicago Bulls attire -- didn't have.
"They couldn't eat because they didn't have dollars," Meyer said. "One of them came up and said, admiringly, If it weren't for you, I would never have seen this place.' It was almost like Keystone Kops. It was funny, up to a point."
That point arrived in February, when the Cuban government was on edge because of a planned rally by an umbrella dissident group called Concilio Cubano. The night before the event, "to make sure I wasn't involved in any way, not only were they following me but they were actually trying to hit me as I was in my car. They had a car without license plates but it was the same security agents who had been following me all week, it wasn't as if I didn't recognize them."
She said the agents' car tried repeatedly to ram the passenger side of her vehicle, its occupants yelling at her -- using her name -- to demand that she hang up her cellular telephone. She finally retreated to the U.S. mission, she said, and left again only when she was able to obtain an escort.
The Concilio Cubano rally was canceled under pressure from the government but the next day, the day it was to have been held, the tensions within the government exploded in the shoot-down by Cuban military jets of two small unarmed planes operated by Brothers to the Rescue, a Miami-based Cuban exile group.
The lethal attack on the planes drove relations between Washington and Havana to a new low and prompted President Clinton to sign a law he had previously opposed aimed at discouraging foreign companies from investing in Cuba. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who embarked that same weekend on a trip to South America, lost no opportunity to berate the Cubans for the incident, and said it dramatized Cuba's isolation as the only nation in the hemisphere still ruled by a dictator.
By midsummer the Cubans had apparently had enough. Meyer was expelled because, according to foreign ministry spokesman Rafael Dausa, she went beyond appropriate diplomatic conduct and "supported, organized and united small counterrevolutionary groups."
Meyer and other State Department officials said that is a typical Cuban response to human rights work. They said the Cubans allege that all dissent is fomented by the United States, thus seeking to discredit the legitimacy of the opposition.
Last Thursday, the State Department gave Meyer its "Superior Honor Award," citing her for "exceptional performance." The citation said her "dedication, bravery, and consistently sound policy recommendations" helped senior officials work toward a "free and democratic Cuba." CAPTION: Foreign service officer Robin Meyer: "I don't think it was me personally. I think it was anyone who was in contact with human rights activists." CAPTION: Expelled Cuban envoy Jose Luis Ponce: "There's no way you can compare what she was doing there to what I do here. She was intervening in Cuban affairs."