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Cuba's Tough Line on Dissent: Don't Trust Anyone Under 30

WHEN Cuban officials last month sentenced political dissident Leonel Morejon Almagro to 15 months in prison, the charges were resisting arrest and disobedience.

But Mr. Morejon's real crime in the eyes of the Cuban regime may be that he is young.

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Morejon had recently begun demonstrating an ability to rally Cuba's traditionally weak and disparate political opposition and eventually to lead it.

He was a central guiding force behind the creation last year of Concilio Cubano. This federation of Cuban dissident groups had planned to bring the opposition together for the first time in the history of the Communist regime on Feb. 24 - until the Cuban government banned the meeting.

With much of Cuba's dissident leadership either exiled or part of the same generation as aging dictator Fidel Castro Ruz, the regime has been able to rest relatively peacefully knowing it has done a good job of preempting a future internal threat.

The last thing the Castro regime wants is a youthful political opposition, with a potential for rallying Cuba's disaffected youths. So as young dissidents like Morejon have emerged, measures against them have been harsh.

"In the recent repressive wave, the force was brought down on the young much more than on the old," says Vladimiro Roca, a longtime dissident of Mr. Castro's generation. "The government's conflict right now [is less] with us [than] with the young."

In the repression that preceded Concilio's aborted February meeting, more than 100 dissidents were either detained, briefly jailed, or placed under house arrest. In the aftermath, and in addition to Morejon, Lazaro Gonzalez Valdez, another member of Concilio's youth wing, received a 14-month prison sentence - also for "disobedience."

Concilio Cubano claims to embrace more than 30 opposition and human rights groups with perhaps 1,500 members. The government ridicules the organization as a foreign creation with no history and no base.

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Officials point out, for example, that Concilio members, including Morejon, have had contact with Jose Basulto, leader of the Miami exile group Brothers to the Rescue. Two of that group's planes were shot down by Cuban jets Feb. 24 under disputed circumstances.

At the same time the government is belittling Concilio, however, it is taking measures to make sure the group does not flourish. People like Morejon send chills through the regime for good reason, according to some young dissidents.

"Leonel Morejon is energetic, he's determined, he's young, and he would be capable of drawing other youths into Concilio," says Manuel Cuesta Morva, a former government historian and now a member of an illegal social-democratic youth group. "He's capable of putting a fresh face on the opposition, and the government feels it has to put the brakes on that."

The issue of youths is particularly sensitive for the government. The regime has placed heavy emphasis on building new generations dedicated to its revolution, developing all kinds of youth groups, from a Scout-like organization called the Pioneers to sports and university groups and the powerful Union of Communist Youths (UJC).

A Cuban youth culture has been allowed to emerge through rock groups, some expressions of a gay culture, and American-style dress. But any youthful political opposition remains taboo.

Cuba's traditional political opposition, little-known and graying along with Castro, has posed little threat to that order. But if new leaders managed to give the opposition a renovated, younger image, that could spell trouble.

Recognizing this potential threat, the government has worked not only to perpetuate the opposition's image as aging and irrelevant, but to boost its own image of youth, embodying Cuba's future. The image-building is directed not just internally, through the UJC, or the daily government newspaper Juventud Rebelde (Rebellious Youth), but to the outside world as well.

During the recent flurry of foreign coverage of Cuba following the downing of the two American private planes and the repression of Concilio, numerous foreign TV news programs juxtaposed comments from youthful Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina and interviews with prominent, older dissidents like Roca. The picture was one of Mr. Robaina, who keeps his scissor-cut hair below the collar and wears black T-shirts under black jackets - sleeves rakishly pushed up - debating an earnest but other-era dissident.

Foreign print and broadcast journalists also have good access to Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, director of the foreign ministry's North American department, who eschews Robaina's cool Latin style for a starched preppy look - all button-downs and loafers - but who also conveys youth.

The subliminal message is clear: The regime represents the future, and what little opposition there is, the past.

This system works well for the government, some observers say.

It allows foreigners easy access to the older, respected dissidents, thus giving the outside world a picture of tolerance, even though these same dissidents are allowed little relevance within the country.

At the same time, young and rising dissidents who might someday pose a threat can be harshly dealt with because they remain unknown, both inside and outside Cuba.

Aside from imprisonment, young dissidents are also simply encouraged to leave the country.

One of them, Luis Felipe Lores Nadal, was first imprisoned in 1993 on a charge of "dangerousness" to the regime for leading an opposition youth group in antigovernment actions, including small marches and evening pot-banging.

The musician was freed in March 1995 during a wave of international pressure on Cuba to improve human rights.

But from the day Mr. Lores got out, he has been under pressure to emigrate. Having become one of 10 members (along with Morejon) of a Concilio youth commission called New Pines, Lores was detained from Feb. 24 to March 3 and was told he had a choice - either seek refugee status somewhere or face additional imprisonment.

"Accepting to go to prison again is like saying I want to die, and I don't," he says. He has no doubts about why the government wants him out of the country. "Our objective in New Pines was to initiate and develop fresh and young ideas within Concilio," he says. "That was a big worry for the political police."

The commission members were already talking about actions that would have been more active and public than just the small gatherings of eight to 10 people the opposition generally sticks to, he says.

"We were pushing for something more direct, some tougher action against the government that we thought could eventually force more political opening," says Lores. Among the ideas were street protests that would focus on bringing out Cuban youths.

Despite the government's action against Concilio, members say they will push for another meeting of dissident groups "when the time is right."

But even though some observers had predicted Concilio would lie low for only a month or two, most sympathizers don't expect Concilio to move ahead on another meeting soon. "This is a time to wait and see," says Mr. Roca.

Some sympathizers expect the group to gauge the fallout from new US legislation designed to toughen the trade embargo on Cuba before making any moves.

In the meantime, Lores says he is determined to leave the country. His departure might serve the government's design of targeting youths to weaken the political opposition's future, he acknowledges, but he says he remains confident. "There are plenty of other young to carry on."

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