Illustration by Mitch Handsone

Savage Justice

Have you ever imagined what it would be like living in a society where, say, a John Ashcroft would be unrestrained by the niceties of constitutional law? Where draconian enforcement of a Patriot Act includes long prison terms for alleged thought crimes? Where, in the name of fighting “terrorism,” nonviolent prisoners are summarily executed after being denied even the trappings of due process?

Imagine no more. Just read the latest news reports, I’m sorry to say, coming not out of Guantánamo but out of Havana. Last Friday, three men were lined up at dawn and executed by a Cuban firing squad after being convicted of “grave acts of terrorism,” according to a statement read on state television. Their executions came a mere nine days after they had surrendered in a failed attempt to hijack a Havana ferryboat to Florida. Their trial was, of course, secret. Even the Cuban state isn’t shameless enough to open to public scrutiny such a degrading and chilling sham — a capital trial that allows no serious defense. And both Cuba’s Supreme Tribunal and its governing Council of State, headed by Fidel Castro, immediately rubber-stamped the death sentences. I suppose when you don’t have a real trial, you don’t need any real appeals.

These are the New Socialist Men that Che Guevara so glowingly evoked in his essay of the same title 40 years ago? This is a society superior to savage capitalism?

The state murders in Cuba only punctuate what has been an equally sordid season of broader repression. A month ago, as the war in Iraq was breaking out, Cuban police arrested nearly 80 dissidents on charges of receiving money from and collaborating with U.S. diplomats to undermine Cuba’s government.

The Bush administration’s top diplomat in Cuba, James Cason, has indeed been quite assertive. Publicly challenging Castro, he had made a point of visiting the homes of many of these dissidents and had also brought many of them to his own residence. He freely admits to giving them newspapers, books and Internet access as part of his “normal duties.” Whether he actually gave them money or not — who knows?

No one knows, because the “trials” of these unfortunate folks were also sealed and secret. And conducted on greased rails. Within a few weeks of their arrests, all six dozen had been given prison sentences of six to 28 years.

Among those condemned are self-styled independent journalists and librarians. I know some of these people, and some are rather pathetic. Others are quite courageous. Hector Palacios, who got a 25-year term, was a leader of the Varela Project — a completely public campaign calling for free elections that was signed on to by thousands of Cubans.

I don’t pretend to know the minutiae of Cuban law (a seeming oxymoron) well enough to tell if it is a high felony to hobnob with gringo diplomats. (I do know I have had coffee numerous times with Cuban diplomats here in the U.S., and they have given me books and magazines, and I never once thought that would land me in prison.) But when police arrested these dissidents they found no grenades, dynamite or guns. But rather, in a scene right out of Fahrenheit 451, the uniformed defenders of the Cuban Revolution confiscated fax machines, typewriters and computers. Spin this any way you please, but in the end these people are being jailed not for anything they have done — but rather for things they have said. Or read.


Some friends of mine urged me not to write this column, arguing that at a time when U.S. troops are occupying Iraq, this would only “play into the hands of the right.” That is, of course, ridiculous. There are many enemies of freedom in the world, and — no — not all of them live in Washington. The actions taken by Fidel Castro this past month, precisely in this moment of American belligerence, are guaranteed to only please the ultraright. They help confirm my longtime suspicion that Castro lives in mortal fear that his most powerful tool of social control, the U.S. embargo, will one day be lifted.

“The Cuban state’s current repression of political dissidents amounts to collaboration with the most reactionary elements of the U.S. administration in their efforts to maintain sanctions and to institute even more punitive measures against Cuba,” reads one of the few, too few, leftist statements on this issue. The statement, signed by a number of prominent leftists, sadly and accurately concludes: “By its actions, the Cuban state declares that it is not a government of the left . . . but just one more dictatorship, concerned with maintaining its monopoly of power above all else.” I urge you to sign onto the letter available at the link listed below. Especially if you are on the left.


This letter is being organized by Leo Casey, an activist with the United Federation of Teachers in New York. Contact: leo


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