U.S. senator calls for release of dissidents
Friday, April 25, 2003
HAVANA -- U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin called on Cuba's communist leadership Thursday to free 75 dissidents sentenced to long prison terms in the nation's harshest crackdown in decades.
Harkin, who has fought for years to ease U.S. sanctions on Cuba, also urged Washington to adopt more moderate policies toward the island, promoting more openness between the two countries while emphasizing respect for human rights.
Harkin, D-Iowa, was the first American senator to visit Cuba since Fidel Castro's government began its mass roundup of opposition leaders in mid-March.
Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack announced earlier this month that he had scrapped plans for his own trip to Cuba because of the crackdown.
"Some said I should not come here under these circumstances," Harkin told reporters before leaving Cuba on Thursday. "But a policy of isolation and the embargo of 42 years has not achieved any U.S. objectives nor made life any better for the average Cuban citizen."
Cuban prosecutors tried the dissidents in hearings that lasted no more than one day each. They were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 28 years.
The crackdown came during a rash of plane and boat hijackings, which ended earlier this month when the government executed three men convicted of terrorism in the attempted hijacking of a ferry filled with passengers. No one was harmed in that attempt to commandeer a boat to the United States.
Harkin said he met with parliament speaker Ricardo Alarcon and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, and "made it very clear that people on all sides of U.S. policy toward Cuba were united in condemning the arrests and sentences of these 75 people."
Harkin said he also met with nine European ambassadors based in Havana, as well as several leading government opponents who members of his delegation declined to name -- evidently at their request.
The senator said the diplomats and the dissidents convinced him "the best course of action now is moderation, not escalation; engagement, not isolation" by the American government.
Harkin said did not meet with President Fidel Castro.
The Cuban government, he said, "should grant the appeals of all 75 prisoners of conscience and release them forthwith."
But Harkin said the Bush administration should also make it clear to Cuba "that there are no plans for military action against Cuba."
The United States should meet with its allies in Latin America and elsewhere to "review our past policy toward Cuba and chart a new course that does not escalate tension between Cuba and the U.S.," Harkin said.
Harkin has led U.S. congressional efforts in recent years to ease sanctions that prevent most Americans from traveling to and doing business with Cuba.
A new U.S. policy toward Cuba, he said, should encourage more trade and travel between the two countries, but also "promote more openness and respect for human rights."