A prominent Cuban dissident vowed to begin a hunger strike starting yesterday to pressure the government to free the last 13 political prisoners jailed in a 2003 crackdown on dissent, after a midnight deadline for the men’s release passed without any news of their fate.
Guillermo Farinas, who won Europe’s Sakharov human rights prize last month after staging a 134-day hunger strike in support of the prisoners, told reporters he would stop eating yesterday if the remaining dissidents are not in their homes.
That would likely spark deep criticism of Cuba in European capitals, and could set back efforts to improve ties with Europe that have been frayed since the 2003 arrests.
As the deadline approached, wives and mothers of the nation’s most prominent political prisoners marched through the leafy streets of the capital on Sunday demanding that the government honor the deal — or face protests and international condemnation.
However, no word came, and now a standoff appears inevitable between Cuban President Raul Castro and the nation’s small but vocal opposition community.
Castro agreed following a -meeting with Roman Catholic Cardinal Jamie Ortega to release 52 prisoners of conscience held since the 2003 crackdown on peaceful dissent. The July 7 deal called for all the prisoners to be free in three to four months, a period that ended at midnight on Sunday.
A prominent church official expressed surprise at the lack of progress.
“It is not what we thought would happen,” the Reverend Jose Felix Perez, who coordinates Cuba’s Catholic Bishops Conference, said on Sunday as it became increasingly clear no releases were imminent.
Ladies in white
He commented after celebrating Mass for the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, the dissident group made up of family members of the 2003 prisoners.
Cuban officials have declined to comment on the deadline.
At first, the government moved swiftly to make good on the deal, sending 39 prisoners into exile in Spain, along with their families.
Authorities even agreed to free 14 other prisoners who were in jail for violent — but politically motivated — crimes. They, too, were sent to Spain, though the agreement struck with the Church made no mention of exile being a condition for release.
However, progress has stalled recently.
The remaining 13 prisoners of conscience have refused to leave the nation, a direct challenge to the government. Some say they will continue to press for democratic political change the moment they leave jail.
“We won’t stop fighting, whether they release them or not,” Laura Pollan, a Damas leader, said following a quiet protest by 30 women on Sunday on Havana’s grand Fifth Avenue thoroughfare.
Her husband, Hector Maseda, 67, is serving a 20-year term for treason and other crimes.
Pollan said if the government fails to release the men, “it will show that their word has no value, and that they cannot be believed.”
Pollan said the group would step up its protests, though she gave no details.
Elizardo Sanchez, the head of the Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said the government was throwing away what good faith it had earned in the past few months.
“To not release them would be fatal to the promise given to the church, and a fraud against the international community,” Sanchez said.
Many in Europe had applauded the release deal and the gesture even earned grudging approval from the US, which has been at odds with Cuba for more than a half century.
A delay could set back US President Barack Obama’s long-rumored plans to loosen travel restrictions and make it easier for students, academics and researchers to visit the island nation. US tourists are effectively barred from traveling to Cuba.
Havana calls US criticism of its behavior hypocritical, saying Washington does not have a perfect human rights record either. Cuban officials note the US government is friendly with many regimes accused of torture and other abuses and counts dictators and strongmen among its allies.
Cuba considers all its dissidents to be common criminals and says they receive money from the US for the express purpose of bringing down the nation’s communist system.
As for Farinas, the dissident threatening to start a new hunger strike, officials say his legal problems include violent behavior toward a coworker. They also say he has lived through two dozen hunger strikes only because of the medical attention given to him by government doctors.
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