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Cuba's new crackdown

A HANDSOME green parrot made it to Florida recently from Cuba, 90 miles away, without opening its wings. Squeezed inside an empty two- litre Coca Cola bottle with the base cut open, the bird was the only possession of one of the latest wave of Cuban "boat people" fleeing political crackdown and economic hardship.

The authorities in Florida say the number of Cuban refugees has more than doubled over the past year, and is running at around 200 a month. Whereas the last mass influx, in 1994, consisted mainly of starving Cubans on rickety rafts, the new refugees are better off, paying thousands of dollars to smugglers using power boats to outrun US coastguard vessels.

They have been arriving in droves along the popular beaches of Miami, wading ashore to the astonishment of tourists, after the smugglers drop them off. The authorities believe smuggling rings based in Cuba, the Bahamas and Florida are ferrying the latest refugees here for up to pounds 5,000 a head, a fortune for most Cubans but revealing their desperation or fear of arrest.

The refugee wave has increased since Fidel Castro pushed through a tough new law earlier this month, cracking down on dissent. It allows jail terms of up to 20 years for any activity that could be vaguely construed as undermining his one-party rule. The so-called Law for the Protection of National Independence and the Economy stunned Cubans both on the island and in exile, who noted it was in direct contrast to the abertura (opening- up) forcefully suggested by Pope John Paul during his visit to Cuba a year ago.

After the Pope's visit, President Castro released more than 300 prisoners, but many turned out to be common criminals released on condition they leave the country. Cuba's best-known political prisoners remained in jail, and four of them are due to go on trial tomorrow for "sedition" after 19 months in pre-trial detention. Their offence? They criticised the President and the fact that he allows only one party - his own. They face up to six years in jail.

The four were charged long before the new law, which could have put them behind bars for 20 years, but its implications concern foreign journalists, diplomats and investors in Havana as well as Cubans. The law bars any "collaboration" with "hostile" US policy, giving or seeking information or possessing "subversive material". That phrasing is sending shivers down the spines of diplomats, who know their communications are monitored by the Cubans, businessmen, who are paid to tell their bosses or clients the bottom line, if not the truth, and journalists, who could be accused of possessing subversive material simply by having a copy of this article.

But it is the 40 or so "independent journalists" in Cuba - that's what they call themselves, since the press has been 100 per cent under Communist Party control since the 1959 revolution - who face the greatest threat. With the advent of the Internet and e-mail, they have grown more bold in sending uncensored reports to the free world.

Those reports, coming back to the island on US-based radio stations or in clandestinely imported newspapers, have in turn given courage to Cuban dissidents, particularly since the papal visit. A woman who shouted "Down with Fidel" during the Pope's trip was swiftly detained; just before Christmas last year, 20 dissidents staged an unprecedented demonstration, raising a Cuban flag outside Havana's parliament building and reciting the Lord's Prayer.

In another rejection of American "normalisation" efforts - groups of Congressmen and students visited Cuba last week - the President tried to block phone calls from the US, rightly blaming most US telephone corporations for being behind in their bills. The American companies simply switched their connections through third countries or satellites, and calls to the island continued.

The companies, including ATT and MCI, had stopped paying their bills to Cuba as a result of a court case in Miami. The relatives of four Cuban- American civilians, shot down by Fidel Castro's air force three years ago last week, had sought to receive compensation from Cuban funds received by the American phone companies.

To commemorate the February 1996 shooting of the two light aircraft by Cuban MiGs, the four victims' colleagues - from the Brothers to the Rescue group, which overflies the Florida straits to help rescue Cuban "boat people" - flew to the edge of international airspace north of Havana last week, held prayers on board their planes and threw flowers and pro-democracy leaflets from their cockpits.

Foreign journalists in Havana said that, due to prevailing northerly winds, thousands of the leaflets fluttered onto the streets of the Cuban capital. They carried articles of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the exhortation: "Cubans, fight for your rights." Most people the journalists saw snatched the leaflets from the streets out of curiosity, but after discovering their contents, dropped them as if they were red-hot.