Posted on Sunday, 11.07.10
Deadline gone, Cuban dissident vows hunger strike
By PAUL HAVEN
HAVANA — A prominent Cuban dissident is vowing to begin a hunger strike
Monday to pressure the government to free the last 13 political
prisoners jailed in a 2003 crackdown on dissent, after a midnight
deadline for the men's release passed without any news of their fate.
Guillermo Farinas, who won Europe's Sakharov human rights prize in
October after staging a 134-day hunger strike in support of the
prisoners, has told The Associated Press he will stop eating Monday if
the remaining dissidents are not in their homes.
That would likely spark deep criticism of Cuba in European capitals, and
could set back efforts to improve ties with Europe that have been frayed
since the 2003 arrests.
As the deadline approached, wives and mothers of the island's most
prominent political prisoners marched through the leafy streets of the
capital Sunday demanding the government honor the deal – or face
protests and international condemnation.
But no word came, and now a standoff appears inevitable between
President Raul Castro and the island's small but vocal opposition community.
Castro agreed following a meeting with Roman Catholic Cardinal Jamie
Ortega to release 52 prisoners of conscience held since the 2003
crackdown on peaceful dissent. The July 7 deal called for all the
prisoners to be free in three to four months, a period that ended at
A prominent church official expressed surprise at the lack of progress.
"It is not what we thought would happen," the Rev. Jose Felix Perez, who
coordinates Cuba's Catholic Bishops Conference, said Sunday as it became
increasingly clear no releases were imminent. He commented after
celebrating Mass for the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, the
dissident group made up of family members of the 2003 prisoners.
Cuban officials have declined to comment on the deadline.
At first, the government moved swiftly to make good on the deal, sending
39 prisoners into exile in Spain, along with their families. Authorities
even agreed to free 14 other prisoners who were in jail for violent –
but politically motivated – crimes. They, too, were sent to Spain,
though the agreement struck with the Church made no mention of exile
being a condition for release.
But progress has stalled recently.
The remaining 13 prisoners of conscience have refused to leave the
island, a direct challenge to the government. Some say they will
continue to press for democratic political change the moment they leave
"We won't stop fighting, whether they release them or not," said Laura
Pollan, a Damas leader, following a quiet protest by 30 women Sunday on
Havana's grand Fifth Avenue thoroughfare. Her husband, Hector Maseda,
67, is serving a 20-year term for treason and other crimes.
Pollan said if the government fails to release the men, "it will show
that their word has no value, and that they cannot be believed."
Pollan said the group would step up its protests, though she gave no
Elizardo Sanchez, the head of the Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human
Rights and National Reconciliation, said the government was throwing
away what good faith it had earned in the past few months.
"To not release them would be fatal to the promise given to the church,
and a fraud against the international community," Sanchez told AP.
Many in Europe had applauded the release deal, and the gesture even
earned grudging approval from the United States, which has been at odds
with Cuba for more than a half century.
A delay could set back the Obama administration's long-rumored plans to
loosen travel restrictions and make it easier for students, academics
and researchers to visit the island. American tourists are effectively
barred from traveling to Cuba.
Havana calls U.S. criticism of its behavior hypocritical, saying
Washington does not have a perfect human rights record either. Cuban
officials note the U.S. government is friendly with many regimes accused
of torture and other abuses, and counts dictators and strongmen among
Cuba considers all its dissidents to be common criminals and says they
receive money from the U.S. for the express purpose of bringing down the
island's communist system.
As for Farinas, the dissident threatening to start a new hunger strike,
officials say his legal problems include violent behavior toward a
co-worker. They also note he has lived through some two dozen hunger
strikes only because of the medical attention given to him by government
Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez contributed to this report.