The arrest and long-term imprisonment of dozens of dissidents in Cuba and the rapid execution of three men who had attempted to hijack a boat were deplorable. Over the past few years, there had been an encouraging trend toward greater tolerance of dissent in Cuba. Former President Jimmy Carter met with dissidents during his trip to Cuba a year ago. Other international leaders and many visiting Americans have also met with them. Some of the better-known dissidents were allowed to travel abroad. The government didn’t like the Varela Project, which calls for a referendum on greater political liberties and economic reforms, but it had not imprisoned those who put it forward.

Why then this sudden reversal? Why the crackdown? In part, it was in reaction to growing provocations on the part of the Bush Administration, which had ordered the new chief of the US Interests Section, James Cason, to hold a series of high-profile meetings with dissidents, even including seminars in his own residence in Havana. Given that Cason’s announced purpose was to promote “transition to a participatory form of government,” the Cubans came to see the meetings as subversive in nature and as highly provocative. And, in fairness, let us imagine the reaction of the Attorney General and the Director of Homeland Security if the chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington was holding meetings with disgruntled Americans and announcing that the purpose was to bring about a new form of government–a socialist government–in the United States. He would have been asked to leave the country faster than Tom Ridge could say “duct tape.”

An even more crucial element in the crackdown than Cason’s meetings with dissidents was the announcement of the US policy of “pre-emptive” strikes and the beginning of the war in Iraq. It looked to the Cubans as though the United States had clearly decided on a policy of military action against any so-called rogue state it deemed a possible threat–and to ignore international organizations and international law in the process. It was time, the Cubans concluded, to batten down the hatches. “Who knows?” one Cuban put it to me, “We may be next.”

They noted that Cuba had sometimes been mentioned as part of the “axis of evil.” And they remembered that last year State Department officials had tried to claim (without producing evidence) that Cuba was involved in the production of biological weapons and was a potential threat to the United States. That just might now be enough to prompt a pre-emptive strike, and if so, they reasoned, they could no longer afford to have dissidents, possibly directed by the United States, roaming free.

The conclusion may reflect a certain paranoia. It seems most unlikely that the United States intends to attack Cuba–though if I were Cuban, I wouldn’t be so sure. And my uncertainty would be further stimulated by the warning of the US ambassador to the Dominican Republic on April 10 that what had just happened in Iraq should be an “example” for Cuba.

That aside, Cuba’s response was an overreaction of grand magnitude. Initiatives in Congress to ease sanctions against Cuba will now be on hold. And in the eyes of the rest of the world, it turns Cuba into a rogue state–exactly what Cuba should not want if it fears US military action. Rather, it should be burnishing its international reputation and seeking the political support of Europeans, Canadians and others. The massive crackdown makes such support less likely. And there were certainly less dramatic and counterproductive ways to keep an eye on the dissidents. Cuban state security had the whole movement thoroughly penetrated. Many of the witnesses appearing at the trials were other supposed dissidents who turned out to be state security agents!

If the Cuban crackdown ill served Cuban interests, US policy is counterproductive in terms of our own. The best way to bring about a more open society in Cuba is through a reduction of tensions, dialogue and expanded contacts. The old policy of embargo, pressures and efforts to isolate hasn’t worked in more than forty years, and the even more aggressive embellishments of the Bush Administration won’t work now. The latter have only succeeded in reversing the trend toward greater toleration of dissent–and landed lots of good people in jail. Exactly the reverse of what we should want.