US Denies Hiring Cuban Dissidents as Mercenaries

By Steve Brown | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

( - U.S. officials have dismissed as "ludicrous" allegations from Cuba that 75 dissidents jailed in the communist country this week were "mercenaries" funded by the U.S. government to undermine Fidel Castro's regime. Those jailed in Cuba's recent crackdown on "dissidents" included opposition movement activists and independent journalists.

"That movement is 100 percent indigenous to Cuba," Robert Zimmerman, deputy press advisor with the U.S. State Department's Western Hemisphere Bureau, said. "It's a small movement - the sort of movement you would have in a country where you can get arrested for having a typewriter.

"So for the Cuban foreign minister or anyone else to suggest that they were Cuban dissidents or mercenaries acting at the behest of the U.S. in any way is absolutely ludicrous. This is simply a tyrannical regime trying to defend the way it's been doing business for 40-odd years," Zimmerman said.

Speaking Wednesday, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque defended the swift trials, which began April 2, and lengthy sentences-ranging from six to 28 years-given to the activists, who Zimmerman said "want nothing more" than what all Americans enjoy; "the right to go on the Internet, the right to form a labor union, the right to read what you want to read."

During the trials in Cuba, the dissidents were accused of being financed and advised by America's top diplomat in Havana, Interests Section Chief James Cason.

"Our country has had to struggle against the obsession of the U.S. government to fabricate an opposition in Cuba. We've seen more than 40 years of economic embargo, aggression and armed invasion...with the Bush administration, there has been a leap in hostility against Cuba," Perez Roque said.

Perez Roque submitted payment lists at trials he said came from the U.S. government.

"That's an absolutely outrageous statement on his (Perez Roque's) part," Adolfo Franco, assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development's Latin American and Caribbean Projects, said.

"We did not, although we're perfectly authorized to do so by law. It's absolutely legal for the U.S. to provide assistance to dissidents and their families in Cuba," Franco said. "We have not done so, principally to avoid the kind of outrageous allegations and the untruths that have been uttered by the Cuban government."

USAID does support a number of non-governmental organizations in the U.S. that promote democracy and help dissidents and other individuals in Cuba trying to "create a space for democracy and free-expression in that society," Franco said. "They indeed might have supplied or provided assistance for dissidents and their activities, but we have not provided that assistance directly," he added.

Speaking at Miami University Tuesday, Cason said he had met with many Cubans in Havana with a wide spectrum of interests. "They are, in fact, appropriate and routine contacts with legitimate political actors who enjoy international contacts far beyond the U.S. Interests Section," Cason said.

Dennis Hays, a former U.S. ambassador to Suriname and the current executive vice president for the Cuban American National Foundation, defended Cason's actions. "That's what ambassadors do," Hays said, referring to Cason's meeting with the dissidents in Havana.

While Perez Roque has claimed the crackdown on the Cuban dissidents had nothing to do with U.S. efforts to liberate another country - Iraq - from a dictatorial regime, Hays insisted the timing of Castro's crackdown was "not coincidental."

"It's a deliberate attempt to try to crush a democratic movement while people are looking elsewhere," Hays said.

Zimmerman said the U.S. government does send "small amounts of aid where it can" around the world to "a variety of dissidents, human rights activists and independent librarians" promoting democracy.

He said the U.S. recently sent 5,100 books valued at approximately $7,500 to Cuba, but Castro refused to let the books into his country. Among the works sent were books on the writings of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Stephen King novel and titles like International Human Rights in a Nutshell and Who Moved My Cheese?

Zimmerman said it was nothing that would raise eyebrows in any other country in the world except other tyrannical regimes like North Korea.

"That is certainly threatening to a regime based on power, intimidation and oppression," Hays explained. He said the U.S. has many programs across the world to "promote democracy and basic human freedoms, but that none of them was "in the employ of the U.S. government" or receiving financial support from it.

"So if you consider getting a book by Ghandi or Martin Luther King (from the U.S. government) to be supporting, then yes, but in other respects, no," Hays said.

According to Hays, the only thing for which the jailed activists were guilty was free thinking. "In Cuba, that is a crime," Hays said.

The lesson we should take from this, Hays said, is that the people who are prepared to stand up against a totalitarian state "are people who are worthy of our respect and our support, and we should be thinking of creative ways to help them do that."

"They're just showing what they're really all about," Zimmerman said about the Castro regime's actions. "It's very reprehensible, very unfortunate."

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