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Cuban Activists' Suffering Feeds Call For Change

  • Michael Hirshman

Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega urged the communist authorities to free all political prisoners and said there was a national consensus that the government must change, and quickly.

Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega urged the communist authorities to free all political prisoners and said there was a national consensus that the government must change, and quickly.

Civil society in Cuba, long-embattled, appears to be gaining new momentum following the death of a political prisoner and fresh support from the Catholic Church.

Recent events have focused attention on Cuba's imprisoned opposition activists. On February 23, jailed activist Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after a hunger strike lasting more than 80 days. Classified as a political prisoner by Amnesty International after his arrest in 2003, Tamayo had launched his fast to protest prison beatings and other abuses.

The day after his death, another jailed dissident, Guillermo Farinas, began his own hunger strike.

Farinas's health has since deteriorated, and he has been kept alive through periodic intravenous feedings. Should Farinas die, another activist has already announced he will take up the hunger strike.

Cuba's Cardinal Jaime Ortega has appealed to Farinas to end his hunger strike.

But earlier this week, the Catholic prelate, in an outspoken interview with a local Catholic newsletter, said Cuba was facing its deepest crisis in years. He urged the communist authorities to free all political prisoners and said there was a national consensus that the government must change -- and change "quickly."

Difficulties Facing Government, Opposition

The Caribbean island state is facing its deepest economic slowdown since the Soviet Union collapsed. Three hurricanes, the global financial crisis, and the continuing trade embargo by the United States have piled further pressure on the authorities.

The Ladies in White take part in a protest march in Havana on March 18.
The wives and mothers of Cuban political prisoners have redoubled protests of their own, hoping to keep the focus on their jailed relatives. This group, called the "Ladies in White" because of their white dress, has been harassed by the authorities.

After years of peaceful Sunday demonstrations, the group was informed two weeks ago that it will need official permission for future protests.

"Not only the hunger strike but the gatherings of the women [Ladies in White], I believe, will have a very powerful political impact," says Jose Botafogo Goncalves, a longtime Brazilian diplomat and former minister.

"And with international communications today making censorship difficult, news [of what is happening in Cuba] will disseminate through the world media. I believe this will accelerate political transformation in Cuba."

According to Alvaro Vargas Llosa, a scholar at the California-based Independent Institute and the son of one of Latin America's leading intellectuals, the Cuban authorities are feeling increasingly under threat at home.

Vargas Llosa says that the effect of recent events have been "so powerful that you've seen for the very first time in half a century Castro -- in this case Raul Castro -- publicly speaking against a domestic opposition. Until now they had even refused to recognize that there was such a thing as a domestic opposition."

Whatever its international reach, Cuba's opposition still struggles with its own internal communications.

Due to government policy, less than 5 percent of Cubans are online -- one of the lowest rates in Latin America. Journalist Antony Loewenstein says Cuban dissidents have relied on photocopiers more than the Internet to spread their message.

"Their main form of getting information out was through using a photocopier," Loewenstein says. "Now in many other countries these days you may as well put up flyers around the city, but again most people communicate or get information out -- like in Iran, say -- by the web, via blogs, via Facebook, via Twitter, whatever it may be. But in Cuba that is simply not the case."

Not In Vain

Despite these difficulties, Cuba's opposition seems to have gained new resolve.

Veteran National Public Radio correspondent Tom Gjelten, who has covered Cuban events as well as dissident movements in the former communist world, says he does not expect change to happen quickly.

"Unfortunately I think that the dissident movement in Cuba, unlike the dissident movement in the former Soviet bloc and Eastern Europe, is very weak. People largely are unfamiliar with the dissidents, they don't have much of a following in Cuba," Gjelten says.

"I think there is a tremendous amount of alienation and cynicism in Cuba, but I think when the end of that regime comes it's likely going to come more from people within the regime itself."

Vargas Llosa, on the other hand, is more optimistic, saying that "the dynamics that destroyed other communist regimes in the last three decades have clearly not been in play with the same force inside Cuba."

"But for the first time you begin to see something that wasn't there before which is a certain level of organization, a certain level of resistance, and the willingness to take the sacrifice all the way to actually a life and death situation," Vargas Llosa adds.

Vargas Llosa says the Cuban hunger strike, at the very least, could redefine the current concept of martyrdom. He says young people today tend to associate the concept of martyrdom with terrorism.

"So the notion that [in] this tiny corner of the world in the Western Hemisphere called Cuba, suddenly a group of people [are] willing to sacrifice their lives," he says, "not in order to cause harm to anybody else and not for a cause that is delegitimized but is actually quite legitimate -- which is the cause of freedom in a country that has been under oppression for 50 years -- is really quite remarkable."
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