Jewish World Review March 22, 2004 / 29 Adar, 5764

Jeff Jacoby

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Kerry, Cuba — and the truth | It comes as no surprise to learn that John Kerry, who hates to take one position on an issue when he can take two or three, has come down strongly in favor — and strongly against — US policy in Cuba.

As Peter Wallsten reported last week in the Miami Herald, when Kerry was asked during a Florida campaign stop where he stands on Fidel Castro's repressive regime, he answered, "I'm pretty tough on Castro, because I think he's running one of the last vestiges of a Stalinist, secret-police government in the world." And to make it clear that this bristling stance was no election-year sham, he added: "I voted for the Helms-Burton legislation to be tough on companies that deal with him."

Well, let's see. Congress passed Helms-Burton in March 1996, just days after Castro's air force murdered four unarmed civilians by blowing their planes out of the sky. Helms-Burton codified the longstanding US embargo, but its most significant provision was arguably Title III, which for the first time authorized Americans whose property was stolen by the Cuban government to file suit against any foreign company that acquires the stolen assets. The Senate vote on final passage was a lopsided 74-22 — with Kerry voting no.

When Wallsten asked why Kerry said he voted for Helms-Burton when in fact he voted against it, he was told that the senator opposed the bill "because he disagreed with some of the final technical aspects." And what were those "technical aspects?" Oh, only the bill's most important new sanction: Title III. The yes vote that Kerry trumpeted in Florida had come five months earlier, on a weaker version of Helms-Burton that never became law.

The truth, it seems, is that Kerry is "pretty tough on Castro" and "tough on companies that deal with him" only when he's seeking votes in Florida. When he campaigns elsewhere — in Massachusetts, say — he strikes a different pose. During his Senate re-election campaign in 1996, he told The Boston Globe that he opposed Helms-Burton and would support dropping the whole embargo if Castro would accept certain reforms. "He insisted," the Globe reported, "that the embargo only strengthens Castro by excluding American culture."

By 2000, Kerry was even more adamant. A reappraisal of the embargo was "way overdue," he said, claiming that "the only reason" Cuba is treated differently from China and Russia "is the politics of Florida."

So once again Kerry manages to come down on just about all sides of a controversial issue: for and against Helms-Burton, for and against the embargo, for and against "the politics of Florida." His bristling anti-Castro stance, it seems, is just an election-year sham after all.

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He's right about one thing, though: Castro is running a "Stalinist, secret-police government." To Kerry, that may be just a throwaway campaign sound bite. To dissidents rotting in the dictator's jails, it is a grim reality.

It was just one year ago, while the world's attention was focused on Iraq, that Castro launched a vicious crackdown on Cuba's peaceful opposition. In the space of three weeks, 75 democracy advocates, human-rights monitors, librarians, and independent journalists were rounded up, tried on phony charges, and sentenced to as much as 28 years in prison. Today, all 75 remain behind bars. Many are suffering from illness and inhumane treatment. Among them:

  • Victor Rolando Arroyo Carmona, a 52-year-old independent journalist, has lost 35 pounds since being imprisoned. He is afflicted with heart problems, high blood pressure, and frequent headaches. Last June, after protesting the abuse of another inmate, he was locked in solitary confinement. On Dec. 31, he was dragged from his cell by three prison guards, who brutally beat him about the face and body.

  • Oscar Espinosa Chepe, 63, is an economist who was convicted of "undermining national independence" by criticizing the regime. He is sick with cirrhosis of the liver, liver failure, and bleeding from his digestive tract. According to Miriam Leiva, his wife and fellow dissident, he is imprisoned at a Havana military hospital, with no windows or clean drinking water. The light in his cell burns 24 hours a day, he has lost 40 pounds, and a fungal infection is eating away at his legs. He is not allowed to use the telephone or receive letters, and his wife is permitted to visit him just one hour per month.

  • Nelson Aguiar Ramirez, a member of the Assembly to Promote Civil Society, went on a hunger strike in August to protest intolerable prison conditions. He has arteriosclerosis, which causes his legs to swell, and suffers from an enlarged prostate and a urinary infection. His wife, meanwhile, has repeatedly been warned to stop praying at the Church of St. Rita, a gathering place for the families of jailed dissidents. When she brought medicine and vitamins to the prison where Aguiar Ramirez is being held, she was told he couldn't have them until she stops going to church.

Unlike John Kerry, Cuba's brave democrats don't bob and weave and dissemble. They speak plainly and face the consequences with courage. Their heroism and dignity should inspire us all.

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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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