OUR OPINION: Another round of harassment of dissidents

Once again Cuba's 51-year-old regime gives with one hand and takes away with another - even as the European Union is poised to discuss the potential for strengthening economic ties with the communist island.

After the Cuban dictatorship, under international pressure, seemed to be considering moving 26 sick political prisoners to hospitals a couple of weeks ago, officials cracked down again. Last week, they detained 37 dissidents for several hours to prevent them from attending meetings to discuss Cuba's political and economic crisis.

Despite the harassment, dozens of dissidents managed to attend the meetings and voted in solidarity with the Ladies in White, the Cuban women who peacefully march in Havana to call attention to their loved ones' imprisonment. They also discussed the international attention that the February death of hunger-striking dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo sparked.

Prisoners are ailing

Leaders of Cuba's Catholic Church have been in talks with Raúl Castro in an effort to help the 26 ailing prisoners, among 75 who were swept up in 2003 in another crackdown in which the regime accused the dissidents of being U.S. ``mercenaries.'' Back then, there appeared to be another opening on the horizon, too, as Fidel Castro put on his ``charm'' offensive in an effort to sway Republicans in farm-belt states to press the Bush administration to drop the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

Which raises the perennial question: Do the Castros really want trade and diplomatic relations to improve with the United States and the European Union?

It sure doesn't seem like it.

Even as the regime has moved a few dissidents to prisons closer to their homes, it has continued to harass, detain or arrest others. Meantime, another dissident, Guillermo Fariñas, has caught the world's attention with a hunger strike.

Cuba undercuts progress

Spain, under Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's socialist government, has been pressing the European Union to embrace the Cuban regime without using human rights as a condition for more-favorable trade agreements. But with the recent harassment of -- and regime-backed mob violence directed at -- the Ladies in White, the detention of dissidents and Cuba's snail's-pace response to treating the ailing political prisoners, that's unlikely.

The EU's ``common position,'' established 14 years ago by Spain's then-Prime Minister José María Aznar, sought more direct contact with dissidents to nudge Cuba toward democracy. That is seen as a ``unilateral'' strategy by the Zapatero government, which has proposed more talks with Cuba in a ``bilateral'' stance.

Problem is, Cuba's government has shown through its actions that it does not give any consideration to human rights, even when it claims to be in agreement with the United Nations' universal declaration on human rights. That's why it's welcome that the U.S. State Department is poised to release $15 million to international human-rights groups working in Cuba.

The EU, urged by Spain two years ago, lifted sanctions it imposed after Cuba's 2003 crackdown. Now it's Cuba's turn to act, but so far its actions speak loudly of the same old intransigence.

for the freedom of all cuban political prisoners
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