CubaBrief: The Washington Post Editorial Board on the ongoing hunger strike in Cuba and the deepening crisis for the regime. OAS Secretary General backs strikers

“You have learnt how it was said: ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I say to you, Offer the wicked man no resistance. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; if a man takes you to law and would have your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone orders you to go one mile, go two miles with him.” Matthew 5.38-41

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José Daniel Ferrer and his wife Nelva Ortega on hunger strike in Cuba

Yosvany Aróstegui Armenteros (2020, Wilman Villar Mendoza (2012), and Orlando Zapata Tamayo (2010) are three of many cases of Cuban prisoners of conscience who have died while on hunger strike in Cuban prisons. The Cuban government unjustly imprisoned them in life, harassed their families, and slandered them in death.

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in his 1861 book, The House of the Dead that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” What does this say about the Castro regime that it has barred the International Committee of the Red Cross from visiting Cuba’s prisons between 1959 and 1988, and again from 1989 to the present day?

What does it say about the officials in Havana, who in the midst of an economic crisis, and pandemic were food, and other basic necessities are scarce blocks a shipment of humanitarian aid reaching people in need in Cuba?

The Washington Post Editorial Board today placed a spotlight on another outrage by the Cuban dictatorship:

[Former prisoner of conscience] “José Daniel Ferrer, the most prominent opposition leader on the island, and head of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, known as UNPACU, had been attempting to distribute food and medicine to the needy out of his group’s headquarters and his home in Santiago de Cuba.” … ” Mr. Ferrer had turned UNPACU’s headquarters into a food bank and medical clinic for about 200 residents, who were harassed and interrogated by state security as they used the facility.”

“On March 20, Mr. Ferrer and about 60 UNPACU activists, and some others, went on a hunger strike, which is still ongoing by 39 of them on the island and five abroad, to protest the interference” by regime agents preventing hungry Cubans from getting desperately food.

Most hunger strikes in Cuba have taken place inside the prisons, but many Cubans recognize that the entire island is a prison, and in defiance seek various methods to protest the existing and unjust system. These hunger strikers are risking their lives to be able to feed their fellow Cubans who are hungry and in need. Denying them this right, especially under the current circumstances, is perverse.

Secretary-General of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro

Secretary-General of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro

There is no excuse for the regime’s actions, and it should be condemned. Last week on March 27, 2021 the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro , charged that Cuba’s government was applying “state terrorism to those who think differently,” reported MercoPress. He is right, and the dictatorship in Havana needs to be called out for this outrage, and called to account.

Too many have died on hunger strikes in Cuba. Let us join together so that number does not increase, and demand that their just request to be able to serve their community be met, and the obstruction and harassment by regime agents end. The Washington Post editorial ends with an appeal to regime leaders:

“Cuba’s current leaders should see Mr. Ferrer’s hunger strike not as a threat but as a symptom of a deeper crisis, both economic and political. They have never tolerated dissent, but are unable to extinguish it. If they stick with the old ways — a centrally-planned socialist economy and authoritarian, one-party state — the island will sink deeper into despair.”

The editorial gets a lot right, but it leaves out an important element in the deepening and ongoing crisis, although it is implicit when despair is mentioned, and that is the spiritual dimension.

Despair is the loss of hope, and that is a question of the spirit. The late Czech dissident, former president, and atheist Vaclav Havel in his work Disturbing the Peace oriented his readers into a deeper understanding of the word that seems appropriate to revisit under the present circumstance:

“Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpromising the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

The Washington Post, April 2, 2021

The Post’s View

Opinion: A hunger strike in Cuba reveals a deepening crisis

Several Cubans rest on mattresses and sheets during a hunger strike, at the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba on April 1. (Partido Del Pueblo Handout/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Several Cubans rest on mattresses and sheets during a hunger strike, at the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba on April 1. (Partido Del Pueblo Handout/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Opinion by the Editorial Board

April 2, 2021 at 3:24 p.m. EDT

THE PANDEMIC year has been especially hard for Cuba. The import-dependent island was already hit by Trump administration sanctions and a loss of Venezuela’s oil when the coronavirus decimated tourism. The economy plunged 11 percent last year, and hardship and shortages are leading many Cubans to recall the “special period” of extreme deprivation after Soviet subsidies disappeared in the 1990s. Back then, Cubans learned to improvise with less — making a “steak” out of fried grapefruit rind, for example.

Now, the renewed economic vise is one factor generating a stream of protests against the government. José Daniel Ferrer, the most prominent opposition leader on the island, and head of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, known as UNPACU, had been attempting to distribute food and medicine to the needy out of his group’s headquarters and his home in Santiago de Cuba. Mr. Ferrer, who suffered through an arduous spell in Cuba’s prisons in 2019, was also among those jailed for dissent in the 2003 “Black Spring” arrests of the followers of Oswaldo Payá, champion of the Varela Project, a citizen initiative calling for a referendum on democracy in Cuba. Mr. Payá was killed in a suspicious car wreck in 2012, and Mr. Ferrer has joined with Mr. Payá’s daughter, Rosa María Payá, in the Cuba Decide movement seeking democratic change.

Mr. Ferrer had turned UNPACU’s headquarters into a food bank and medical clinic for about 200 residents, who were harassed and interrogated by state security as they used the facility. On March 20, Mr. Ferrer and about 60 UNPACU activists, and some others, went on a hunger strike, which is still ongoing by 39 of them on the island and five abroad,to protest the interference and more generally the six decade-old dictatorship founded by Fidel Castro and still influenced by his brother Raúl. The security forces have cut off communications to the UNPACU office and surrounded it.

The island has seen months of protest. Last November, the government cracked down on the activities of an artists’ collective, the San Isidro Movement, whose members dared to speak out against the arrest of one of their own. Then in February, a protest anthem created by a collaboration between musicians on the island and in Miami went viral. “Patria y Vida,”/ or Homeland and Life, a play on Fidel Castro’s famous cry of “Patria o Muerte,” is fiercely critical of the regime. “No more lies, my people ask for freedom, no more doctrines” the lyrics declare, to a chorus of “it’s over.” The video has 4.2 million views on YouTube and was being distributed on flash drives on the island. It was met with a barrage of attacks by Cuban state media. It struck a chord.

Cuba’s current leaders should see Mr. Ferrer’s hunger strike not as a threat but as a symptom of a deeper crisis, both economic and political. They have never tolerated dissent, but are unable to extinguish it. If they stick with the old ways — a centrally-planned socialist economy and authoritarian, one-party state — the island will sink deeper into despair.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/cuba-jose-daniel-ferrer-activists-hunger-strike/2021/04/02/41ec8c90-924e-11eb-9668-89be11273c09_story.html

MercoPress, March 27, 2021

OAS Almagro backs Cuban activists on hunger strike

Saturday, March 27th 2021

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“It is time for democracy to return to Cuba,” said the Uruguayan Almagro

Organization of American States Secretary-General of Luis Almagro Friday accused Cuba’s government of applying “state terrorism to those who think differently” and held the current authorities of the Caribbean island accountable “for the health and well-being” of the 55 Cuban human rights activists on hunger strike.

“It is time for democracy to return to Cuba,” said Almagro, who stressed that there are already “several generations of Cubans” who have no rights or freedoms due to an “authoritarian” regime.

The head of the OAS took part in a virtual press conference held by the Cuba Decide organization, together with José Daniel Ferrer, head of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), who has been on a hunger strike for seven days.

The protest, to which 55 people have joined in Cuba and eight abroad, is due to the police siege that the headquarters of that organization in Altamira, in Santiago, has suffered for 12 days.

“We have no other option,” said Ferrer via Zoom. “This is a blockade,” he added. UNPACU carries out humanitarian work with food and assistance from its headquarters to help the elderly, the sick and single mothers with several children and without resources, and these people have not been able to go there for 12 days, he explained.

Both Almagro and Rosa María Payá, from the organization Cuba Decide, appealed to the international community to show solidarity with this protest and demand an end to the Cuban people’s suffering and the impunity of the regime headed by President Miguel Díaz Canel as well as by former President and Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) leader Raúl Castro Ruz.

Payá pointed out that it is sad that many Cubans have no other resource than “their own body” to denounce and protest the repression and the critical humanitarian situation in their country.

Ferrer said that one of the strikers who started fasting seven days ago had to stop due to blood pressure issues while other participants are beginning to show health problems.

He was also quick to remind his audience that the Cuban government was “celebrating” the 62nd anniversary of the creation of the Department of State Security, “the political police that maintains control of the nation with terror and other nefarious actions.”

But it is also the 24th anniversary of an act of police repression that made UNPACU decide to stop doing its work in hiding to have open peaceful opposition.

During the conference, several exiles and political exes intervened who demanded more international sanctions and not to negotiate with the Cuban government and invoked the slogan “Homeland and life”, from the homonymous song that calls for a political change in Cuba and has already exceeded four million views on YouTube.

Ramón Saúl Sánchez, from the Democracy Movement, indicated that in Cuba people are also dying of “despair”, and Rosa María Payá, who heads the Pan-American Foundation for Democracy in addition to being the leader of Cuba Decide, asked that “the alarm be raised ”International for the siege of the UNPACU headquarters and the hunger strike.

“It is urgent” -said Payá- that the international community take note of the “state terrorism” that is applied daily in Cuba and help stop it.

https://en.mercopress.com/2021/03/27/oas-almagro-backs-cuban-activists-on-hunger-strike

Human Rights Watch, January 20, 2012

Cuba: Dissident’s Death Highlights Repressive Tactics

Stop Threats against Villar Mendoza Family

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(Washington, DC) – The death of the 31-year-old dissident Wilman Villar Mendoza on January 19, 2012 following a 50-day hunger strike highlights the ongoing repression in Cuba, Human Rights Watch said today. The Cuban government should immediately put an end to the threats against his wife, Maritza Pelegrino Cabrales, and the group Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), which supports her, and drop any measures that would prevent her and dissidents from attending Villar Mendoza’s funeral. 

Villar Mendoza was detained on November 2, 2011, after participating in a peaceful demonstration in Contramaestre, Cuba calling for greater political freedom and respect for human rights, his wife told Human Rights Watch. He was a member of the Union Patriotica de Cuba, a dissident group the Cuban government considers illegitimate because its members express critical views.

“Villar Mendoza’s case shows how the Cuban government punishes dissent,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Arbitrary arrests, sham trials, inhumane imprisonment, and harassment of dissidents’ families – these are the tactics used to silence critics.”

Villar Mendoza was charged with “contempt” (desacato) and sentenced to four years in prison in a hearing that lasted less than an hour, his wife told Human Rights Watch. While she was allowed to attend the trial, dissidents who tried to enter the courtroom were denied access. Villar Mendoza was not given the opportunity to speak in his defense, nor was he represented by a defense lawyer, she said.

His wife said he initiated his hunger strike to protest his unjust trial and imprisonment.

The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a human rights monitoring group that the government does not recognize, classified Villar Mendoza as a political prisoner in December.

Prison guards placed Villar Mendoza in solitary confinement after he initiated the hunger strike on November 25, his wife said. He told his wife he was stripped naked and placed in solitary confinement in a small, cold cell.  The last time she was allowed to visit her husband was on December 29, she said.

His wife also told Human Rights Watch that government officials had repeatedly harassed her for associating with the Damas de Blanco, a human rights group consisting of wives, mothers, and daughters of political prisoners. She said state security officers explicitly threatened to take away her and Villar Mendoza’s daughters, ages 7 and 5, if she continued to work with the Damas.

According to his wife, Villar Mendoza was transferred to a hospital in Santiago de Cuba days before he died. His wife said authorities had not notified her of his death, and that she had been informed by contacts outside of Cuba, who read the story in the international press. She said she has not yet been allowed to see his body, nor has she been informed about funeral arrangements.

On February 23, 2010, another Cuban political prisoner, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died after an 85-day hunger strike, which he initiated to protest the inhumane conditions in which he was being held and to demand medical treatment.  

https://www.hrw.org/news/2012/01/20/cuba-dissidents-death-highlights-repressive-tactics#