Human Rights at the Eye of the Storm

Patricia Grogg

Havana bus stop. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, March 15  (IPS) — Cuba’s government-controlled media stepped up its offensive Monday in response to what the government calls a well-orchestrated international campaign of misinformation carried out in the last few weeks against this socialist island nation.

At the same time, the Ladies in White – wives and mothers of the group of 75 dissidents in prison since 2003 in Cuba – launched a week of protests to demand the release of their loved ones. The women will carry out different activities, from fasts to street marches or attending mass at various Catholic churches in Havana, for seven days – one for every year their husbands or sons have been behind bars.

“We are going to continue our peaceful struggle, no matter what the cost,” Berta Soler told IPS. The wife of Angel Moya, who is serving a 20-year sentence on charges of conspiring with a “foreign power” (the United States) to destabilize the government – the same charge faced by most of the 75 dissidents thrown into prison that year – added that “We are peaceful and we have nothing to lose.”

In an article by Leyla Carrillo of the Center for European Studies (CEE) in Havana, Granma, the official daily of the governing Communist Party, lashed out again at a Mar. 11 resolution adopted by the European Parliament calling for “the immediate release of all political prisoners” and support for “the launching of a peaceful process of political transition to multi-party democracy in Cuba.”

The statement was part of a global outcry triggered by the death of Orlando Zapata, a 42-year-old government opponent who died in prison Feb. 23, on the 85th day of a hunger strike.

The government denies that Zapata was a “political prisoner,” as he is described by dissident groups.

Smear campaigns are old hat

According to Carrillo, “smear campaigns orchestrated against Cuba are nothing new” and “no one should be surprised” at the European Parliament resolution which was adopted by 509-30 votes with 14 abstentions. The resolution “is part of the onslaught against underdeveloped countries,” she writes.

The article adds that in order to pass resolutions of this kind, events are blown out of proportion from Washington and by the press in industrialized countries, and the concerns of some parliamentarian who visits the country and meets with “dissidents prefabricated from abroad” are incorporated in the statement.

In Carrillo’s view, “the eloquence of the legislators is closely linked to the objectives of the governing forces in the developed world: criticize to suspend cooperation or aid, or to simply impose conditions on it; systematically criticize to denigrate a government that bothers them, or to generate a situation favorable to an intervention.”

Another article, published in the newspaper Trabajadores, links the European Parliament resolution to efforts by the right in Spain and other European countries to derail the attempt by the government of socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to normalize ties between Cuba and the European Union.

Even after the European Parliament issued its statement, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said his country would continue the effort to replace the so-called “common position” on Cuba with an agreement negotiated with Havana.

Spain, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, is trying to change the bloc’s common position on Cuba by eliminating a clause calling for democracy and improved human rights, in order to remove hurdles to better relations.

Spain’s aim is to push for “a greater commitment by Cuban authorities with respect to human rights,” as well as “the release of political prisoners.”

Madrid and Havana have held periodic talks on the issue since 2007.

But the main hurdle to that objective is building a consensus among all 27 EU countries on the abolition of the common position, which was agreed in 1996 when the Spanish government was led by centre-right Prime Minister José María Aznar, who heavily influenced the decision.

Havana complains that the common position amounts to unacceptable meddling in internal affairs and is an obstacle for the full normalization of ties with the EU. It also says the talks launched with the EU in 2008, after several years of distancing between Cuba and the European bloc, can only move forward if the common position is scrapped.

Carrillo writes that with the common position, the EU basically joined “the U.S. blockade (as the nearly five-decade embargo is called in Cuba), but in the elegant style of the Europeans.”

Another article in Granma accused the European Parliament of “openly calling on European governments to intensify their subversive activities and on their embassies in Havana to get even further involved in encouraging, supporting and financing the mercenaries” – the term used by the government to refer to dissidents in Cuba.

“The resolution brazenly calls for cooperation projects between the European Commission and Cuba to be used for subversive purposes,” says the lengthy article by Javier Rodríguez, a journalist with the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina, published Mar. 12 in Granma.

As part of the process of normalization of ties, Cuba and the EU relaunched bilateral cooperation in 2008, after the bloc lifted the diplomatic sanctions it had adopted when 75 dissidents received lengthy jail terms on charges of conspiring with Washington to destabilize the Cuban state, and three men convicted of hijacking a passenger ferry were executed, in 2003.

Of the original group of 75, 53 are still in prison. The others were released on health grounds.

Laura Pollán, one of the spokespersons for the Ladies in White, told IPS that 26 of the 53 are in poor health.

Dissident Guillermo Fariñas, who has been on a hunger strike since Feb. 24 in Santa Clara, 300 km from the capital, is demanding the release of the 26 prisoners.

Fariñas has been hospitalized since Mar. 11.

“We don’t agree with hunger strikes, because what matters is life, and we must fight for it. But we respect his decision,” Pollán remarked to journalists.