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New Cuban rights abuse: no excuse to slow US outreach

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Fidel Castro's response to the international condemnation following his recent roundup and sentencing of 75 Cuban dissidents has been to blame the United States.

To be sure, chief US diplomat James Cason and others at the US mission in Havana have been providing assistance to Cuba's emerging indigenous civil society by supplying informational materials, hosting meetings, and providing access to the Internet. Mr. Castro's latest actions - which now include the summary execution of three Cubans who highjacked a ferry in an attempt to flee to the US - are stark reminders of Cuba's appalling human rights record, and leave little doubt that the US initiative to aid civil society in Cuba is well intentioned.

The 75, whose prison terms averaged 20 years each, were charged with associating with American diplomats, belonging to "illegal" groups of independent journalists, and running independent newspapers and libraries.

Human rights organizations and governments around the world have condemned the crackdown. Secretary of State Colin Powell rightly called on the Cuban government to "end this despicable repression and free these prisoners of conscience," because "their only crime was seeking basic human rights and freedoms."

But the US now faces a difficult situation. On the one hand, Castro's shocking actions raise the urgency for greater freedom on the island. On the other, because Castro rather predictably used the US outreach as justification to quash the dissident movement, the effectiveness of US efforts to aid civil society has to be questioned. In a sense, the good intentions may only have made the situation worse.

Civil society on the island has been dealt a significant blow.

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