Wednesday, February 24, 2010

From the archives: 2003 hunger strike in Cuba

Hunger strike begins in Cuba
Dissidents seeking release of hundreds of political prisoners
TRACEY EATON Cuba Bureau
The Dallas Morning News

Published: March 12, 2003

Dissidents across Cuba began an unprecedented hunger strike and fasting campaign Tuesday, demanding the release of hundreds of political prisoners.

"We're doing this so the world knows about the terrible human rights violations that go on here," said Nelson Aguilar, 57, who vowed to give up food for "as long as God allows."

In all, about 500 members of the political opposition will fast in the coming weeks, refusing food for eight to 12 hours at a time, organizers said. Six, including three of Cuba's best-known dissidents, vowed to stop eating solid food entirely.

"We'll consume liquids and that's it," said Martha Beatriz Roque, a leader of the island's political opposition. Only chicken broth, fruit juice and yogurt will be permitted, she said.

Authorities had no immediate comment. One official questioned whether the dissidents would follow through on their strike. "By tonight, they'll be eating food when no one's looking," he predicted.

Ms. Beatriz Roque denied such claims and said witnesses and doctors would monitor the strike.

She and three other dissidents - Vladimiro Roca, Felix Bonne and René Gómez - were arrested July 16, 1997, after publishing a document called "The Fatherland Belongs to All of Us." It criticized Cuba's one-party system and called for reforms.

The dissidents drew international attention and became known as "The Group of Four." The government convicted all of sedition and related crimes.

Ms. Beatriz Roque, Mr. Bonne and Mr. Gómez were released in May 2000. All three are participating in the hunger strike. Mr. Roca was released later and isn't taking part, but he remains active in the dissident cause.

Hunger strikes are unusual in Cuba, where political dissent is taboo. And carrying out such a protest in public - a common tactic elsewhere in Latin America - is unheard of on the island.

That's because police and neighborhood watch groups loyal to Fidel Castro are everywhere, said Mr. Aguilar, 63, an electronics technician and father of two.

"The government does everything possible to prevent people from knowing about us," he said. "They know people are desperate. And a single spark could ignite a big fire. That's what they want to avoid."

Mr. Gómez, 59, a lawyer, said he hopes the protest will lead to the release of fellow dissident Oscar Elias Biscet, who has been jailed nearly 30 times for his anti-government activities.

Mr. Biscet, a physician, had just been released from jail in December when, 36 days later, he was captured on a new charge after participating in a peaceful anti-government protest.

"He hasn't committed a crime. He's innocent - like all political prisoners," said his wife, Elsa Morejón.

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