Cuba: Pontiff's visit gives dissidents taste of freedom

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During the Pope's visit to Cuba, the crackdown against the internal opposition has been put on hold. But despite the new, more open, image Cuba is trying to portray, dissidents are gloomy about the future. Susie Morgan reports.

Independent journalist Jorge Olivares Castillo from the tiny Havana Press organisation said that he didn't expect harassment while 3,000 foreign journalists were still in the country to cover the Pope's visit. "It would be bad for Fidel's image."

But as soon as they all left, "I have to expect my papers may be confiscated at any time, my telephone cut off, anonymous telephone threats, my house searched and of course I could be detained again."

He was briefly jailed "in horrible insanitary conditions with dangerous criminals" for having attended the trial of a party member last year. He also expected more "acts of repudiation" - state-orchestrated verbal attacks by a group of about 10 government supporters who have on occasions stood outside his office and harangued him with loudspeakers.

"They accused me of being a counter-revolutionary and a CIA agent", he said, describing Castro's regime as "totalitarian" and "neo-Stalinist" and appealed for outside support.

"The political police are frustrated they can't do anything to us now," said another political opponent, "but they will later". Father Loredo, a dissident Cuban priest, has complained that fellow clerics, inside and outside Cuba, have kept quiet about human rights abuses so as not to upset the Pope's visit.

Despite periodic crackdowns on opponents of Fidel Castro's tightly controlled communist regime, some Cuban analysts say there are fewer political prisoners in jail than before and that the regime is slightly more tolerant, in part because economic conditions are so bad that it has had to make concessions to pre-empt unrest.

None the less there are believed to be at least several hundred political prisoners still in jail - no one knows the exact figure as, in the words of poet Antonio Jose Ponte "it's very hard to find out."

Crackdowns are often connected to important political events and explain a wave of arrests last year in the run-up to last October's Fifth Party Congress, when around 100 opponents from different unofficial organisations, including journalists attempting to challenge official positions on areas including politics and human rights, were arrested.

Several were pressured into leaving the country. A number of detainees were questioned about their links with Cuban exile organisations and - after bombs went off in three Havana hotels last June and July - were told they were being investigated for their involvement in these sabotage attempts.

Some members of unofficial groups supporting the "Cuban Concilium" project, an umbrella organisation coordinating about 135 groups who were rounded up two years ago (most have been released) say they still face harassment. Four leading dissidents forming the "internal dissidents' working group" who were arrested last July for publishing an anti-government tract virulently attacking the one-party system have still not been released.

One journalist working for a small independent agency said: "No one who doesn't slavishly support the regime is allowed any freedom - no other views, even democratic ones, are permitted."