Last March, on the very day that U.S. forces entered Iraq, Fidel Castro launched a major crackdown on peaceful Cuban political dissidents. The Iraqi operation was a surprisingly swift one -- and so was Castro's. Within three weeks, the statue of the Cuban leader's old friend Saddam Hussein had been toppled in central Baghdad; meanwhile, Castro had summarily tried and imprisoned 75 Cubans. Their sentences -- for supposed crimes against the country's security -- averaged 20 years. A few days later, as if in an afterthought, three men who had hijacked the Havana Bay ferry in an attempt to escape the island were also tried. This group was even more unlucky: they were executed by firing squad, despite the fact that there had been no violence during their botched crime.
Cuba-watchers have no doubt that Castro's crackdown was timed to take advantage of the world's preoccupation with events in the Middle East. There is less agreement, however, over why it occurred in the first place. Like everything else relating to Cuba, the mass arrests provoked a flurry of speculation and wide-ranging interpretations among American observers.
Some pundits suggested that Castro made his move to prevent an improvement in relations with the United States -- an improvement he may have thought imminent, given the growing bipartisan opposition in the U.S. Congress to the 40-year-old embargo on Cuba. Certainly Castro has deliberately acted to spoil rapprochement in the past. For example, seven years ago, a dissident umbrella organization called Concilio Cubano was abruptly rounded up, and the Cuban air force shot down two planes belonging to the exile group Brothers to the Rescue -- all just a few days before Congress was expected to reject the Helms-Burton Act, which aimed to tighten sanctions on Cuba. Castro's shootings and jailings helped ensure the opposite result: the act passed. Other observers, meanwhile, proffered a different explanation for Castro's recent crackdown, pointing out that the comandante, mindful of the preemptive strike on Iraq, must