Desperation Rises in Castro's Cuba
BY MEGHAN CLYNE – Staff Reporter of the Sun
November 30, 2005
WASHINGTON – Amid a surging wave of repression by the Castro dictatorship, Cuba’s prisoners of conscience increasingly are resorting to “acts of desperation” – including hunger strikes, suicide attempts, and self-mutilation – in a cry for international recognition and solidarity, and to advance the cause of the island’s liberation.
According to leaders of the Cuban pro-democracy movement in Havana, Miami, and Washington, the months since July have witnessed a dramatic increase in reports of such acts emerging from Castro’s gulag. The prisoners’ behavior, activists said, is a response both to increased crackdowns outside the prisons and new levels of abuse inside, and to the perceived indifference of the international community, particularly Europe.
“The prisoners are pleading to the world to pay attention as they work for liberty,” one of Cuba’s leading prodemocracy activists, Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, told The New York Sun in Spanish earlier this week in a telephone interview from Havana.
Those pleas are taking increasingly gruesome forms.
Late last month, a lawyer and independent journalist locked away for more than two years in the Kilo 7 prison in Camaguey, Mario Enrique Mayo, demanded freedom from his jailers by taking a knife to his face and body. Mr. Mayo was one of 75 dissidents rounded up by the Castro regime during the infamous primavera negra, or “black spring,” of March 2003. According to an account in El Nuevo Herald, Mr. Mayo has been one of the most vocal of the dissidents jailed in that crackdown, and, prior to his acts of self-mutilation last month, twice attempted suicide in jail by trying to strangle himself with a plastic cord.
Among his many incisions, Mr. Mayo carved the letters “I” and “L” into his forehead, proclaiming that he was “inocente,” or “innocent,” and demanding “libertad,” or “liberty.” According to the Herald report, one of Mr. Mayo’s cuts became badly infected. He remains in Mr. Castro’s dungeons, condemned to a 20-year sentence.
In another act of self-mutilation, a prisoner of conscience in the Canaleta prison in Cuba’s Ciego de Avila province, Manuel Fiallo, cut himself to protest prisoners’ lack of medical care, according to a Cuban prison diary published in recent days on a Miami-based Cuban pro-democracy site, Payolibre.com.
The diary, signed by another Canaleta prisoner jailed in November 2004, Hugo Damian Prieto Blanco, was written and illustrated between December 2004 and September. In one of September’s entries, Mr. Prieto recounts and depicts how Mr. Fiallo slashed his veins in protest and was subsequently thrown into a punishment cell by prison guards and left to bleed to death as his screams went ignored by prison authorities.
The leader of Cuba’s Damas de blanco movement, Laura Pollan Toledo, told the Sun that other recent examples of those who carried out self-mutilation included Juan Carlos Herrera and Prospero Gainza Aguero, two of the 75 primavera negra dissidents. Mr. Herrera, Ms. Pollan said, has beaten himself repeatedly in prison to protest the horrible conditions suffered by detainees. Mr. Gainza, she said, sewed his mouth closed in an act of protest, rendering himself unable to speak or eat.
Ms. Pollan’s organization, known in America as the “Ladies in White,” has brought together the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the prisoners jailed in the 2003 crackdown for regular demonstrations to demand their release. The Damas de blanco, along with the international free speech organization Reporters Without Borders, won this year’s Andrei Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, awarded by the European Parliament, for their efforts to combat Mr. Castro’s tyranny.
Ms. Pollan and the Washington representative for Reporters Without Borders, Lucie Morillon, said Cuba has also seen a proliferation in recent months of hunger strikes among prisoners, particularly independent journalists. Concern was mounting yesterday over the fate of one hunger-striking journalist, Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, also known as “Atunez,” as his sister, Berta Atunez, reported that her brother, who has gone without food for about 20 days, had disappeared from the prison where he had been kept and could not be located.
The hunger strikes, suicide attempts, and self-mutilation, observers said, were signs that the conditions both on the island and in its prisons were worsening; that Mr. Castro had grown increasingly repressive as a result of both surging domestic discontent and his backing from Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez; and that recent international appeasement of Mr. Castro had signaled to Cuba’s dissidents that they would need to intensify their cries for them to be heard by deaf international ears.
Ms. Roque told the Sun that the changes in prisoner behavior began around the time of Mr. Castro’s annual address to the nation on the anniversary of his Communist revolution, July 26. In preceding weeks, Mr. Castro had orchestrated the largest crackdown since the March 2003 roundup, arresting more than 30 democracy activists on July 22, many of whom still remain in prison.
The roundup came on the heels of the island’s largest pro-democracy gathering under the Castro dictatorship, a May 20 gathering of the Assembly to Promote Civil Society in Cuba, of which Ms. Roque was one of the principal organizers. That meeting, along with July protests outside the French embassy, marked an increase in open opposition to Mr. Castro’s stranglehold on power, and Ms. Roque said it was fear and a recognition of his loosening grip that had provoked Mr. Castro’s crackdowns.
Ms. Morillon said the Castro regime has arrested at least one independent journalist a month over the last six months, with a total of 25 journalists now languishing in the dictator’s gulag. That figure, according to Reporters Without Borders, makes Cuba “the second biggest prison for journalists in the world,” Ms. Morillon said. Communist China is the first, with 31 jailed journalists.
Cuba’s population is 11 million. Communist China’s is 1.3 billion.
These abuses, Ms. Roque said, “Are simply because the government knows it is in an untenable situation,” adding that the Castro regime saw itself as suffering from a “terminal illness.” The crackdowns on dissidents, Ms. Roque said, had been matched by an increase in brutality inside the prisons to which they are condemned.
Ms. Pollan, reached by telephone at her home in Havana, said prisoners’ acts of desperation were also driven by horrifying conditions inside the jails.
Owing to the large number of prisoners of conscience – which Ms. Pollan said numbered over 1,000 – space in Cuban jails is cramped. The Cuban population in general, she said, has been suffering from inadequate nutrition, stemming from a recent scarcity of fruit and vegetables. Prisoners, she said, bear the worst of the shortages, and are growing ill as a result.
Fruits and vegetables are an important source of Vitamin A, and Ms. Pollan said Vitamin A deficiency among Cuban prisoners is causing blindness and other eyesight problems. Water for drinking and bathing, too, is scarce in the jails. A lack of medical attention for ill prisoners is also presenting an urgent problem, which Ms. Morillon noted was ironic in a country that touts its “universal health care.”
According to Ms. Morillon, the situation in the jails is particularly harsh for journalists and other prisoners of conscience. The Castro regime, she said, detains prisoners of conscience among “regular thugs, who are usually asked by prison authorities to harass the journalists.”
Beyond protesting worsening conditions inside the dungeons, Ms. Pollan said the hunger strikes an
d similar behavior were also acts of defiance against the regime, with prisoners showing their contempt for their jailers using the only methods available to them.
That method of resistance against Communist brutality has a long history. Americans are likely most familiar with the case of Vietnam war hero James Stockdale. Admiral Stockdale’s Medal of Honor citation recounts that he resisted his communist captors in Hanoi by mutilating his face by beating it with a wooden stool, undertaking “self-disfiguration to dissuade his captors from exploiting him for propaganda purposes.” Stockdale, according to the citation, inflicted “a near-mortal wound to his person in order to convince his captors of his willingness to give up his life rather than capitulate,” which spared his fellow prisoners further torture.
According to Ms. Pollan and Cuban-American leaders in Congress, the Cuban prisoners’ self-mutilation represents similarly courageous acts of resistance against their Communist captors.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican of Florida, said the prisoners’ recent actions “show their willingness to sacrifice their own lives for the greater cause of freedom and democracy for their nation and their people.”
“Cuba’s internal opposition,” the congresswoman added, “is fully aware that they were born free and that no one is entitled to deny them their inalienable human rights. This is why I believe that the psychological transition from an enslaved people to a free people has begun.”
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican of Florida, praised the prisoners, adding that their acts were “a sign of desperation, a cry for solidarity, and for recognition of the reality” of the Cuban gulag.
Moreover, Mr. Diaz-Balart said, the prisoners’ acts were “a denunciation of the indifference, which really becomes complicity.” The willful ignorance of Cuba’s suffering under the Castro regime by the press and the international community, and their romanticizing of the dictator, amounted to abetting the Castro dictatorship, the congressman said.
Mr. Diaz-Balart cited Europe in particular, saying the continent’s appeasement of Mr. Castro and their rejection of dissidents in recent months had fueled a sense of desperation among Cuba’s prisoners.
In June, the European Union decided to extend its policy of not inviting Cuban dissidents to official national day celebrations at EU countries’ embassies in Havana, as the inclusion of dissidents had greatly irked the dictator. The July crackdowns by the Castro regime were responses to dissidents’ protests outside the French embassy, after the country unilaterally normalized relations with Mr. Castro’s regime, and after Mr. Castro’s foreign minister, Felipe Perez Roque, was invited to the embassy’s July 14 Bastille Day celebration, from which the Cuban opposition was excluded. And Cuba resolutions adopted at the Ibero-American summit in Spain in October were generally seen as a blow to the Cuban opposition and accommodating of Mr. Castro.
Activists yesterday said yesterday that the desperation of the Cuban prisoners’ pleas made it all the more important that such indifference end immediately.
Ms. Morillon called on the EU to step up its demands for the release of jailed journalists, saying it was up to the outside world to show solidarity with the hunger strikers. “We should not let them down,” Ms. Morillon said. If there is outside criticism of and pressure on the Castro regime, she said, the prisoners “will know that there is some interest – they will see that what they went to prison for is not in vain.”
Ms. Pollan, too, said it was incumbent on the international community to respond to the prisoners’ cries for support with expressions of solidarity. She encouraged concerned parties around the world to write letters to the Castro regime demanding the dissidents’ release, and urged world leaders to use their speeches and other public appearances to denounce Mr. Castro’s tyranny and demand the liberation of his captives.
“They need to know that the world is clamoring for their freedom,” she said.
A message left at the Cuban U.N. mission in New York seeking comment on the prisoners’ plights went unreturned.