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Us may punish cubans { April 17 2003 }

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April 17, 2003
U.S. May Punish Cuba for Imprisoning Critics

WASHINGTON, April 16 — The Bush administration is considering a series of steps to punish the Cuban government for its recent crackdown on dissidents, officials said today.

Among the more drastic are the possibility of cutting off cash payments to relatives in Cuba — a mainstay for millions of Cubans — or halting direct flights to the island, the officials said.

President Bush is likely to make a public statement soon about the crackdown, which has stirred grave concern among Cuba policy experts here and dampened the hopes of lawmakers and others seeking to ease the current trade sanctions.

At the same time, the president is expected to issue a stern warning to the Havana government that the United States will not tolerate another exodus of rafters, the officials said. Several times during Mr. Castro's 44-year tenure, most notably in 1980 and 1994, he has relieved internal tensions by allowing mass migrations to Florida.

In recent weeks, the Castro government has jailed nearly 100 government critics, independent journalists, human rights advocates and others, and sentenced many of them to lengthy prison terms. In addition, Havana last week executed three men who commandeered a ferry and sought to reach the United States, the third such hijacking attempt in a month.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said on Tuesday that Cuba "has always had a horrible human rights record," but, he added, "It's getting worse."

"When you look at what they have done in recent weeks and recent months with respect to stifling dissent, with respect to arresting people and sentencing them to long years in prison, in jail, just for expressing a point of view that is different from that of Fidel Castro, it should be an outrage to everyone," he said. "It should be an outrage to every leader in this hemisphere, every leader in this world."

Administration officials said they were preparing a variety of options for the president, and no final decisions have been made. The harshest sanctions involve restricting or eliminating the transfer of cash payments, called remittances, to friends and relatives on the island. The payments, sent primarily from South Florida exiles, are a lifeline to millions of Cubans and, with estimates as high as $1 billion, a mainstay of the economy.

Also being considered is a move to limit the number of Americans who travel to Cuba by ending direct charter flights between the countries. Thousands of travelers — mostly Cuban-Americans visiting family — board charter flights each month from Miami, New York and other cities.

The Bush administration has already moved to curb other travel to Cuba, worried that it has increasingly become a popular tourist destination, especially for those who oppose American policy. Last month, the administration revoked authorization for travelers engaged in educational programs aimed at increasing contacts between Cubans and Americans.

The Cuban-American community, which has long been a bulwark of support for sanctions, is divided over whether to impose harsh measures. While some Cuban-American lawmakers back new sanctions, the Cuban American National Foundation, which is the most influential exile lobby, has called for protecting the tenuous links between Cubans here and civil society in Cuba.

Officials and Cuba specialists offer a number of explanations of why Mr. Castro has unleashed the most sweeping crackdown on dissidents in years.

Some say the Cuban leader was unnerved by the American-led ouster of an ally, Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Others note that the dissident community, long marginalized in Cuba, had made some strides in recent months, including the collection of more than 11,000 signatures on a petition to introduce democratic reforms. The head of the United States mission in Cuba, James Cason, infuriated Cuban officials by convening meetings of the government critics.

Dagoberto Rodríguez, the chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, which serves as embassy in the absence of diplomatic ties, said that Mr. Cason and other American diplomats had been bankrolling and organizing dissidents, something American officials strongly deny.

"The U.S. government is spreading the notion that these people are imprisoned because of their ideas," Mr. Rodríguez said in an interview. "But they have conspired with the American government."

The repression has deflated efforts to increase contacts through trade and travel to the island. In Congress, majorities in both chambers favor lifting travel restrictions for Americans and advocate greater trade beyond the authorized sale of food and medicine.

But the White House opposes such moves and advocates of greater engagement concede that Havana has made their job much more difficult by locking up its prominent critics.

Officials said that they were also preparing a strong statement for the president to make on illegal immigration. In recent days, rumors have swirled in various Cuban cities about the prospects for another rafters' exodus.

"We will not tolerate rafters," said one policy maker.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company |

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