Wednesday, March 10, 2010
DISSIDENT'S DEATH SPURS NEW PROTESTS IN CUBA
(Source: USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2010-03-08-cuba-protest_N.htm)
By Rick Jervis, USA TODAY
Dissidents are going on hunger strikes in Cuba after the death of a prisoner of conscience in an attempt to bring global attention to the oppression of the Castro regime, dissidents and rights groups say.
"If they allow me to die, it will demonstrate to the world that there have been political executions here in Cuba from 1959 until the present day," said Guillermo Fariñas, referring to the more than 50 years that Cuba has been under communist control.
Fariñas, 48, went on a hunger strike Feb. 24, a day after the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo. Tamayo, 42, died after refusing food and water for 82 days.
Two other prisoners — Luis Enrique Ferrer Garcia and Evan Hernandez Carrillos — have also announced hunger strikes, according to the Miami-based Cuban Democratic Directorate, which tracks opposition figures in Cuba.
Fariñas, who spoke last week from his home in Santa Clara, has since been taken to a hospital by relatives. He said Tamayo's death has energized Cuba's dissident movement.
"It has really touched the opposition," Fariñas said. "Everyone wants to show support."
The movement comes as the United States and Europe have been softening their stances toward Cuba. The Obama administration lifted restrictions on travel to the island by Cuban Americans and toned down the language on Cuba in the annual State Department terrorism report.
In Congress, bills have been filed to ease restrictions further. The European Union lifted diplomatic sanctions, and Cuba's suspension from the Organization of American States has been ended as well.
Some Cuba experts see the hunger strikes as a gamble as a way of trying to prompt change.
"Once these people lose their life, it does not help the opposition movement," said Juan del Aguila, an associate professor at Emory University in Atlanta who has studied the Cuban opposition. "It is clearly a sign of desperation, no question about it."
About 200 Cubans have been imprisoned for crimes such as criticizing the government's economic policies to passing out pamphlets against abortion or on the United Nations Bill of Rights.
As many as 5,000 Cubans served sentences for "dangerousness," without being charged with any specific crime, according to the State Department. Prisoners are beaten on a near-daily basis in cells infested with vermin and lacking water, according to the department's human rights report.
The International Committee of the Red Cross regularly visits prisons to check on conditions, including the U.S. facility for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay. It has been refused access to Cuba's prisons. "It's been a long time since we've been able to visit Cuban prisons," says Marçal Izard, an ICRC spokesman.
There was hope things would change when Fidel Castro ceded power to his brother Raúl, but Human Rights Watch says Raúl Castro has locked up scores of people for exercising their fundamental freedoms. The group says Raúl Castro has used the courts to silence free speech, quash labor rights and criminalize dissent. Human rights defenders, journalists and others have been given sham trials and imprisoned for lengthy terms, the group says.
Tamayo had been imprisoned since 2003 on charges that include "disrespecting authority." Government media denounced him as a "common prisoner."
Fariñas' first arrest came as a journalist for reporting on hospital corruption. He has since served 11 years for a variety of offenses. On Monday, Cuba denounced him in the Gramma newspaper and said it "will not accept pressure or blackmail."
Fariñas said he recognizes that he is in a showdown and that Raúl Castro is not likely to give in.
"I don't plan on giving up, either," Fariñas said.