Monday, June 13, 2011

Spain Betrays Cuba's Dissidents

Spain Betrays Cuba's Dissidents
12. June 2011 21:25

June 13 - President José Zapatero helped Castro get rid of the best
leaders of the island's nascent democracy movement.

Despite 21% unemployment and a looming debt crisis, Spain is still
considered one of the world's great travel destinations. That is unless
you are a Cuban prisoner of conscience who was deported and dumped here
by the military dictatorship in Havana. In that case, life as an alien
on the sunny Iberian Peninsula is economically and psychologically grim.
Over the past 11 months, the Cuban regime has abruptly removed 115
political prisoners from their jail cells and banished them to Spain,
calling their exile "liberation." Many of them are part of a group known
as "the 75," who were arrested in March 2003 for activities like
collecting signatures on a democracy petition, leading peaceful marches,
or writing for independent newspapers. They were permitted to leave with
their immediate families and bring one change of clothes from Cuba, but
they were not given the chance to say goodbye to friends and extended
family and were issued no papers. A number of them have tried to claim
political-refugee status, but the Spanish government has not been eager
to grant it. As a result, many of them still have no permanent documents.
Last week I met with 10 of them here. Their stories of years in Cuba's
dungeons and of the wider repression across the island are hair-raising.
One of them showed me smuggled photos from inside the notorious
Combinado del Este prison, a filthy, infested facility not fit for
animals. Some prisoners of conscience have spent years there.
After three days of these interviews, I began to slump under the weight
of the Cuban reality. But the cloud that darkened my spirit was not
brought on by anything these patriots had revealed about the hell-hole
known as Cuba. I am well-versed in Castro's human rights record. The
truly distressing part of the prisoners' stories is the morally bankrupt
role played by the Socialist government of Spanish President José Luis
Rodríguez Zapatero in assisting the Cuban dictatorship to disguise the
deportation as "liberation." It's what one might expect from the bosses
in Burma, North Korea or Iran.

The harsh prison conditions in Cuba are legendary, though the regime has
not allowed any human rights observer to have a look in more than two
decades. One of the exiles told me about a punishment technique called
"the crab," which he said is used on common criminals but one human
rights activist in the U.S. told me is also used on political prisoners.
One handcuff is put on one wrist and the other handcuff is put on the
opposite ankle. Another set of handcuffs is put on the other wrist and
ankle. Then the prisoner, wearing only underwear, is tossed onto the
floor of a dank cell where he may remain for a day or more. Beatings,
solitary confinement and harassment of family members at home are also
common practices.

This kind of stuff is supposed to curb dissent but after seven years of
grisly prison life, many of "the 75," a number of whom were serving
sentences of more than two decades, showed no signs of cracking. Orlando
Zapata Tamayo went on a hunger strike and died at the hands of the
regime in February 2010. The beatings by Castro thugs of the Ladies in
White—the wives, sisters and mothers of the political prisoners—were
captured on cellphones and went viral on the Web. Another
hunger-striking dissident, Guillermo Farinas, was gravely ill.

"The 75" had become a huge public-relations problem for the regime. As
governments and intellectuals around the world condemned the systematic
brutality, it was clear that more than a half-century of Cuban
propaganda promoting the socialist paradise image was in danger of going
down the drain. To minimize the damage, the regime needed not only to
get the prisoners out of the country under the headline of "liberation,"
but also to ensure that they would land in oblivion. Spain agreed to
help, and why not? Then-Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos has a warm
relationship with the Castro government and was a frequent VIP guest on
the island.

Most of the former prisoners told me that they did not want to leave
Cuba, but Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who acted as a go-between for the
dictatorship, pressured them and their families. Family members, worried
that their loved ones might die in prison, asked them to take the
Spanish exit.

Once in Spain, they realized they'd been had. They were clearly
political refugees, and under Spanish law they were entitled to claim
that designation. But for Spain to admit that they were victims of
political persecution would negate the whole point of the exercise,
which was to paint Castro as a great humanitarian who had set them free.
This is why many of those I spoke with remain in legal limbo.

The transition to democracy in Cuba depends on two things: New leaders
at home and international solidarity with their struggle for liberty
from abroad. Mr. Zapatero has betrayed the Cuban people on both fronts.

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