On Tuesday morning, after two days of silence, the Bolivian Interior Ministry announced the arrest and imminent extradition to Cuba of Cuban dissident Dr. Amauri Sanmartino Flores at his home in Santa Cruz, according to The Miami Herald.
A refugee in Bolivia for the past six years, Sanmartino, who is a medical doctor, was arrested on Saturday by armed men in plain clothes, according to eyewitnesses. He was then transported to the Bolivian capital of La Paz to await extradition.
Sanmartino was originally granted refugee status in Bolivia after having defected from Cuba by swimming to Guantanamo Bay. Under the controversial “wet foot/dry foot” policy of the US Immigration Service, Cubans are granted asylum in the US only if they actually land on American soil (“dry foot”). Because Guantanamo Bay is not US territory (it is leased from the Cuban Government), Sanmartino could not be granted residence in the US, and American authorities arranged asylum for him in Bolivia.
A prominent member of the Cuban dissident colony in Bolivia, Sanmartino has increasingly become an embarrassment to the government of President Evo Morales, a close ally of Fidel Castro. In recent years, he has arranged for and encouraged the defection of more than 100 Cuban doctors from the ranks of the more than 2,000 Cuban medical personnel currently in Bolivia on loan from the Castro government.
Santa Cruz, where Dr. Sanmartino resides, is known as a center of opposition activity against the Morales regime.
Spokesmen for the Cuban dissident community in Bolivia say Sanmartino is “A victim of the long arm of the (Castro) dictatorship,” and the Morales government is complicit in delivering a Cuban citizen to “The gloomy machinery of the Castro gulag for the simple act of having expressed opinions in opposition to the system of disinformation, manipulation and indoctrination of that regime,” according to the Spanish political blog, HispaLibertas (translated from Spanish by this author).
Osvaldo Peredo, spokesman for Morales’ political party, Movement Toward Socialism ( Movimiento Al Socialismo, MAS) declared, “Mr. Sanmartino has violated his refugee status through his political activities and repeated attacks against the government.”
The United States embassy in La Paz issued the following statement on Tuesday:
“We are aware of Mr. Sanmartino’s case and we are in contact with the Bolivian government about it,” the embassy said. “In addition to local law, we believe that this case involves international conventions and agreements to which Bolivia is a signatory.”
Oscar Urenda, a spokesman of the opposition party, Podemos, has called for habeas corpus in an effort to free Sanmartino.
Podemos has also been in the forefront of opposition to the burgeoning alliance between Morales and Hugo Chávez, the socialist president of Venezuela. The party has demanded that Venezuelan ambassador Julio Montes be declared Persona Non Grata for “interfering in Bolivia’s internal affairs,” by remarking recently that “If for some reason this pretty Bolivian revolution were threatened, and they asked us for our blood and our lives, we would be here.”
According to World Peace Herald, members of Podemos insist that Sanmartino’s criticism and activities are directed mainly at the Castro regime and that he has a right to speak his mind. “This violates international agreements for the protection of refugees. It’s the worst thing that has happened under the Morales regime, which is trying to emulate the Castro regime,” asserted Walter Arrazola, a Santa Cruz deputy of the Podemos party.
Sanmartino is married to a Bolivian, Normina Chávez. She told reporters yesterday that she was able to speak with her husband by telephone, and that he had told her he was driven to a series of safe houses before being flown to La Paz to begin deportation proceedings.
Meanwhile, Sanmartino is reported to be suffering from heart problems and has been admitted to a police clinic for “observation.”
Incidents like the Sanmartino arrest point to the accelerating spread of the totalitarianism practiced by left wing socialists in Latin America. Suppression of opposition voices is one of the first measures taken by dictators bent on consolidating their strength, and the Morales government’s actions are in that classic mold.
Egged on by Venezuela’s Chávez, Morales may have moved too far with the arrest of Sanmartino. Human rights organizations worldwide and Cuban exile groups in Miami and Spain are rallying to defend the detained Cuban doctor, as world opinion turns against the Morales government’s latest faux pas and his approval rating in the polls at home slips.
Unlike Chávez, however, Morales is not rich. Though Bolivia sits on the second-largest natural gas deposits in South America (after Venezuela’s), and though the country also has substantial oil reserves, they have not been exploited to the degree that Venezuela has exploited its oil. Thus, though Morales did seize ownership of the gas fields last May, he needs the former owners, foreign companies including Brasil’s Petrobras and Spain’s Repsol YPF, to operate them for him. Production is still limited, providing Morales far less revenue to finance his agenda than Chávez controls.
Ever since the National Revolution in 1952, the indigenous population of Bolivia has steadily gained influence and power in Bolivian politics, culminating in the election of one of their own, Evo Morales, who is an Aymara, to the presidency in December, 2005. Morales parlayed his leadership of the cocaleros (coca leaf farmers) to a 54% majority in the December election, taking office as the country’s first indigenous president in January, 2006.
Though he has made much-publicized visits to both Cuba and Venezuela in which he pledged “solidarity” with Castro and Chávez, Morales has also met with the US ambassador and termed his meetings “cordial.” Washington, however, has adopted a “wait and see” attitude.
The Sanmartino arrest may change that.