Thursday, March 18, 2010

The plight of Cuba's hunger strikers

The plight of Cuba's hunger strikers

Cuba's neighbours should tell Castro's regime that if it wishes to avoid
isolation it needs to improve its human rights record
John Keegan
Thursday 18 March 2010 12.30 GMT

Today marks the seventh anniversary of a vicious crackdown on opponents
of the Castro regime in Cuba. In the spring of 2003, the news agenda was
dominated by the preparations for the US-led invasion of Iraq. In
Havana, 90 so-called "agents of the American enemy" were arrested. Among
those incarcerated were teachers, doctors, union organisers,
journalists, human rights activists and dissidents. Seventy-five of
those arrested were tried in circumstances which fell short of
international standards. They were given jail sentences ranging from six
to 28 years. As bombs fell on Baghdad, few voices were raised in protest
at events in Cuba.

The anniversary this year is likely to receive more attention. One of
those arrested in 2003, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died last month following
an 80-day hunger strike. Another dissident, Guillermo "Coco" Farinas,
who began a hunger strike on February 24, is perilously close to death.
A third political prisoner, Ariel Sigler Amaya, who has been in prison
for 20 years, is in extremely poor health in a Havana hospital and,
according to his family, is receiving inadequate treatment.

These developments have not gone entirely unnoticed. The European
parliament has condemned the "avoidable and cruel death" of Tamayo and
called on the communist dictatorship to release its political prisoners.
Governments closer to the Caribbean island, however, have been more
muted in their criticism. Leaders in the region find it more convenient
to call for the United Kingdom to cede sovereignty over the Falklands
than to denounce the human rights abuses of their neighbour. A new
regional grouping, provisionally called the Community of Latin American
and Caribbean States, will hold its first meeting in Caracas next year
and has the enthusiastic support of Raul Castro. There is no chance that
this body will speak out against the persecution of Castro's opponents.
Latin American leaders are caught in a trap of their own making,
believing that to criticise human rights abuses in Cuba is somehow to
support Washinghton's embargo.

The despots in Havana seem to think that they can pursue the "China
model" of modern development – reaching out with one hand for economic
ties with foreign countries, while crushing internal dissent with the
other. Cuba's neighbours need to tell Castro's regime that if it wishes
to avoid isolation it needs to improve its human rights record. As the
brave Cuban men and women who dare to speak out against their rulers are
harassed, imprisoned and worse, the prospect remains shamefully remote.

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