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by Andres Oppenheimer
Urgent message for Latin American, European and Canadian officials who welcomed Pope John Paul II's 1998 visit to Cuba as a sign of a new opening on the island: You should read Cuba's new gag law against independent thinkers. It's a return to the darkest ages of Soviet communism or European fascism.
The Law for the Protection of National Independence and the Economy of Cuba - better know as Law No 88 - was passed by Cuba's rubber-stamp National Assembly last month, but its full text is only now beginning to circulate among foreign governments and human rights groups.
Judging from a copy I received this week, it's not only directed against Cuba's courageous independent journalists but could be applied to any Cuban who writes a letter abroad complaining about Cuba's problems, or - God forbid - suggesting that the Maximum Leader may be less than perfect.
Among its key provisions:
Article 6: Sets prison terms from three to eight years for those "who accumulate, reproduce or spread material of subversive character from the government of the United States of America, its agencies, dependencies, representatives, officials, or from any other foreign entity.
Target: any publication sent by foreign pro-democracy groups, which often smuggle into the island copies of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, or banned books like George Orwell's Animal Farm and biographies of Martin Luther King and Mohandas K Ghandi.
Article 7: Sets penalties from two to five years in prison for "anyone who...collaborates in any way with foreign radio or television stations, newspapers, magazines or other mass media with the purpose of...destabilizing the country and destroying the socialist state." The penalties rise to three to eight years in prison if such collaboration "is carried out for profit."
Target: Cuba's independent journalists, who are not allowed to work in state-controlled media, and sell their reports to foreign media. Many of them have become a more reliable source of news than the Communist Party's daily Granma or the government's news agency Prensa Latina.
Article 9: Sets prison terms of seven to 15 years to "anyone who...carries out any action aimed at hindering or hurting economic relations of the Cuban state."
Target: Could be applied against any Cuban who complains to a foreigner about the state of the economy, since such information can lead a potential foreign business partner not to invest on the island.
Article 11: Sets prison terms of three to eight years to "anyone who...directly or through third parties, receives, distributes or participates in the distribution of financial, material or other resources, from the government of the United States, its agencies, dependencies, representatives, officials or private entities.
Target: The paragraph is aimed at prohibiting religious or other non-governmental organizations from sending money, computers or fax machines to independent groups or individuals in Cuba.
Conclusion: While Law 88 is ostensibly aimed at countering the "US economic war on Cuba," its real target is not the US government - which has been trying to build bridges to Cuba lately - but Cuba's independent journalists, independent civic groups on the island, and US and European non-governmental organizations trying to help them.
"It's lamentable," Pierre Shori, Sweden's minister of international cooperation, told me in a telephone interview Wednesday. "This kind of free movement of thought should be allowed: It's part of the modern world, No man is an island, and neither can be Cuba."