The recent arrest, trial and sentencing of dissidents in Cuba has been much criticized in the West from the standpoint of human rights and legalities. But I look beyond that to what it tells us about the Cuban leadership’s sobering assessment of the current world situation. It is in that wider historical context that we can best understand what has been called Cuba’s crackdown on dissent.

First, we must understand that the charge against them was not that they dissented, but that they conspired with the head of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana to subvert the Cuban state. Under Bush’s recently appointed diplomatic representative, James Cason, the Interests Section has become “the headquarters of internal subversion in Cuba,” according to Cuba’s Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque. In violation of diplomatic norms, Cason has been organizing dissidents, even hosting meetings with them in his home, supplying them with equipment and funds as part of the $8 million allocated this year to “support the development of civil society in Cuba.” One could well imagine the outrage in this country if the tables were turned and Cuban diplomats were organizing and financing an opposition here to the U.S. government. But such interference in another country’s internal political affairs is the accepted norm when it is the U.S. doing it, and particularly when it is done against Cuba.

In the Cuban case, the expressed aim of such intervention is regime change, to use the currently fashionable term. That has been the aim of U.S.-Cuba policy for over 40 years, through ten administrations. So if this is an old story, why does Cuba crack down now, particularly after allowing more political space recently? Isn’t this an overreaction?

I think the Cuban leadership is acting on its assessment of a changed world situation characterized by a blatant, more aggressive U.S. imperialism that is tending toward fascism. The Bush cabal has just conducted a successful war of aggression in defiance of most of its traditional allies, most of the nations of the UN, and an unprecedented massive expression of world public opinion. It has proclaimed its intention to maintain its military predominance for the 21st century through unilateral, preemptive wars against any possible future challenger, not just globally, but even regionally. And Cuba is clearly on its hit list!

In the face of this grave danger, we have to ask: how can Cuba hope to defend itself? Since the mid 1980s, Cuba’s defense has rested not on a professional army, but on an armed, trained and organized civilian population that would make any U.S. invasion of the island prohibitively costly. Under the Casper Weinberger Doctrine, which still prevails among Pentagon planners, the U.S. will fight only those wars in which it can achieve decisive results in a relatively short time with little or no casualties. After Vietnam, this was the only kind of war that would be politically viable in the U.S. For this reason, the preferred target is a weak state (Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq). Indeed, U.S. sanctions against Iraq can be viewed as having been designed to weaken the ability of Iraq to withstand the eventual U.S. invasion. In view of this, Cuba’s best deterrent is to show political unity.

The U.S. countermove is to try to promote political division within Cuba. Ideally the Bush crowd would like to see social turmoil that could serve as a pretext for military intervention under the guise of a humanitarian mission. The first step in that direction is to promote a civil society that is in opposition to the state – never mind that Cuba already has a socialist civil society based on a participatory political culture. It is that ploy that the Cuban leadership has sought to nip in the bud by cracking down on U.S.-organized subversion. They know they are dealing with a very dangerous enemy.

That is what I believe is the Cuban leadership’s assessment of the current situation. It is not unlike that of many progressives here in the belly of the beast. What conclusions should we draw? If U.S. progressives wish to see more political space for differing views in Cuba, then we must struggle to curb the reactionary cabal in Washington. It is our government’s hostility toward the Cuban Revolution that limits political space in Cuba. The Cuban government would like breathing room to perfect its own democratic institutions. Considering that it has been under siege for four decades now, it is amazing how much progress Cuba has made. It needs our solidarity, our help in relaxing the pressure on it from the Yankee colossus. At this moment, that behemoth is in the hands of a fanatical cabal. It is the enemy of the Cuban people, as it is of most of the peoples of the world, and it is also the enemy of the American people. It is our responsibility to begin regime change here at home.

Cliff DuRand is professor emeritus of philosophy at Morgan State University, and coordinator of the annual Conference of North American and Cuban Philosophers and Social Scientists, www.cubaconference.org.