Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 14, 2003
Religious protest Cuban crackdown
Castro hides behind Iraq war
By ART BABYCH
Canadian Catholic News
The harshest crackdown on Cuban dissidents in decades is straining relations between Canada and Cuba and bringing calls from the leaders of Catholic religious communities for a boycott on travel to the Caribbean nation.
Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham summoned Cuban ambassador to Canada Carlos Fernandez de
Cossio to his office April 8 after dozens of the 80 Cuban dissidents arrested March 18 were sentenced to prisons for 12 to 27 years.
He presented him with a letter stating that the Canadian government is "extremely concerned about the curtailment of human rights and freedom of expression in Cuba, and is deeply disturbed by the severity of the sentences."
The Canadian Religious Conference - whose leaders were in Cuba only days before the arrests to prepare for the next Inter-American Religious Conference in Brazil next year - said, "A culture of fear has dominated the Caribbean country since March 18 when the crackdown began."
They accuse Cuban leader Fidel Castro of initiating the crackdown while world attention was focused on the war in Iraq.
Among the arrested dissidents - referred to as the Prisoners of Cuba's Springtime - are human rights advocates, Christians, journalists, poets and artists. They included organizers of Project Varela, a petition signed by 10,000 Cubans who want a referendum on social, political and economic reform.
One of the key Project Varela organizers said in a letter to the CRC, which represents 350 Catholic religious communities in Canada, "This repression is meant to destroy Project Varela. It is the first time in Cuban history that a civic movement of pacifists with the goal of bringing about justice and liberty is flourishing."
The CRC issued a statement saying it stands in solidarity with "the unjustly-held Prisoners of Cuba's Springtime and all Cubans who are courageously daring to reclaim their basic human rights and liberties."
Among its recommendations, the CRC urged Canadians to postpone their Cuban travel plans until the dissidents are released, adding, "How can you take a vacation where people are suffering under such repression? The country's plentiful beaches and warm Caribbean waters are magnets for Canadians and Europeans looking for low-cost winter vacations."
The organization also called on the Canadian government to pressure Cuban authorities to respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of those being held and to "Investigate the way justice is carried out in this country with which it has friendly and commercial relations."
To Christians and social activists, the CRC asked that they write Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham and their member of Parliament, encouraging them to intervene.