More Cuban political prisoners put their lives on the line
At least five Cuban political prisoners are refusing food in a
spontaneous trend triggered by the February death of a dissident.
BY FRANCES ROBLES
Egberto Angel Escobedo completed his 17th year in a Cuban prison last
Friday, and his 56th day of a hunger strike.
He's at a penitentiary called ``Red Ceramic'' in Camagüey, where the
military keeps him in isolation to prevent other inmates from spreading
word of his failing health.
Escobedo is one of at least five cases of political prisoners -- down
from seven -- who are refusing food, in what experts say is an
extraordinary surge of inmates at different Cuban lockups fighting over
different causes. Protesting everything from medical care to prison
uniforms, they are using an age-old technique that over the years has
met with mixed results.
``I don't recall at least in the last decade seeing so many people in
jail on a hunger strike,'' said former political prisoner Ricardo
Bofill, who served two stints totaling 15 years. ``There is a political
context that contributes to all this. They perceive that this is the
moment to pressure the government, that there is momentum.''
Some protesters, like prisoner Diosdado González, quickly have their
demands met. His wife's sympathy hunger strike lasted just a day. A
dozen other prisoners over the decades, such as Orlando Zapata Tamayo
four months ago, died.
Experts say the current strikes, likely fueled by Zapata's death, were
uncoordinated, spontaneous and far from unprecedented.
From the fight for independence against the Spanish to the battle
against the dictators who came before the Castros, Cuban activists have
refused food in a quest to have a spotlight shone on their causes.
In the late 1960s, entire prisons would go on collective hunger strikes
to protest conditions. Before 1959, intense media coverage turned hunger
strikers into overnight national cause célèbres, said former prisoner
José Albertini, who wrote the 2007 Spanish-language book, Cuba and
Castroism: Hunger Strikes in Political Prisons.
Albertini's great-grandmother died in the late 1800s while imprisoned
for struggling for Cuba's independence. She refused to eat or to feed
two of her children, and all three died.
``The hunger striker is political and largely does this for press
attention to their cause,'' Albertini said. ``In the 1960s and '70s,
they did it out of dignity, because they knew nobody would listen.''
And while journalists are shut out of Cuba's prisons, the proliferation
of cellphones and the Internet have helped spread information about
hunger strikes that in the past the Cuban government could have kept secret.
``The international community around the world should be up to date on
the political prisoners and Cuban citizens who oppose'' the Castro
regime, Escobedo said in a message distributed by the Democratic
Directorate human rights organization. ``I will continue carrying out
Orlando Zapata Tamayo's call to resistance, which cannot be extinguished.''
Janisset Rivero, who heads the Democratic Directorate, said Escobedo is
having trouble breathing, is suffering from a kidney stone and passed
earlier this month. He pleaded to be taken to a hospital but was
returned to his cell block, she said.
``This is urgent,'' Rivero said.
Escobedo, 43, was jailed in 1994 for sending human rights complaints to
Amnesty International and the United Nations. Caught with a confidential
police memo about how to organize repression, he was charged with enemy
propaganda and espionage. His nine-year sentence has been bumped up to 26.
His hunger strike is to protest inhumane prison conditions.
``I can't recall a moment with so many people on strike in different
places and over different causes,'' Rivero said.
She acknowledged that sometimes the Cuban government cedes to hunger
strikers' demands. When the plea is for something minor and tangible,
such as over a refusal to wear a certain prison uniform, the Cuban
government is likely to give in, she and other experts said.
But the government response is inconsistent and often depends on the
international attention given to the case.
``In general, it's not a strategy that works,'' said Pedro Corzo, who
heads the Institute of Historic Cuban Memory.
Experts agree that the Cuban government is torn. It does not want to
create martyrs by letting hunger strikers die but also is loath to show
weakness by giving in to their demands, particularly since dozens of
dissidents have taken up the technique in the past months.
Some Cuba watchers privately criticize the method as one that has been
abused and is often not taken seriously by authorities: most hunger
strikers eventually give up.
In the weeks after Zapata's death, at least 20 dissidents declared
Still among them is Santa Clara dissident Guillermo Fariñas, who became
known worldwide after a successful 2006 hunger strike to demand Internet
He is now hospitalized and being fed intravenously. He has not eaten in
over 100 days. In a recent article, the Cuban government-run newspaper
Granma warned that he could die.
``There are bio-ethical principles that require a physician to respect a
person's decision to start a hunger strike,'' Granma said. ``Doctors can
only act when the patient has gone into shock, a stage at which this is
usually too late.''
Fariñas' condition is notably deteriorating, the paper reported, placing
the blame on Fariñas himself, foreign diplomats and the news media that
``Now the Cuban government is more careful and keeps Guillermo Fariñas
alive,'' Albertini said. ``But really they want him to die, so they can
say, `Look, we did all we could.' ''