After sentencing 78 dissidents and independent journalists to as much as 27 years in prison last week, Cuban President Fidel Castro has raised the stakes in his most severe crackdown in decades. Last Friday three men who tried to hijack a ferry to Florida earlier this month were summarily executed--jolting human rights activists already outraged over the imprisonment of the dissidents, accused by Castro of being in the service of the U.S.
What set off Castro's fury? Those close to his inner circle say he feels insulted by the U.S.--and unusually nervous. In hopes that the U.S. would relax its 41-year-old economic embargo, Castro, 76, had begun to soften his anti-Yanqui vitriol. Last year he even allowed Jimmy Carter to visit and speak out for democratic change. But the Bush Administration has delayed Congress' anti-embargo legislation indefinitely. At the same time, a bona fide dissident movement has been growing on the island. "These [dissidents] are just employees of Bush's efforts to maintain his criminal economic blockade," says a Cuban official--although their indictments reveal crimes often no more serious than owning a fax machine. Executions in Cuba, while infrequent, aren't unusual for noncapital crimes. Rights advocates are worried that more may be in the offing. --By Tim Padgett