Cuba's Political Prisoners and the Struggle for Liberty
By Aramis L. Perez
The Cuban Resistance
There is a growing nonviolent movement for freedom in Cuba, a country under totalitarian rule since 1959. This movement spans the country, drawing from diverse sectors of the population. Despite the regime's constitution and legal system ensuring the systematic violation of the Cuban people's basic rights (Amnesty International- Cuba Urged to Revoke Repressive Laws and Release Prisoners of Conscience, a pervasive repressive apparatus employing surveillance, torture, and violence against freedom activists, (Human Rights Watch- New Castro, Same Cuba ) and a notorious record of political imprisonment and harsh treatment spanning half a century ( Cuban Democratic Directorate- El Presidio Político en Cuba. Las consecuencias de 47 años de la revolución cubana) Cuba's civic resistance movement is having a greater impact on the Island and abroad than ever before.
Today, youth activists for democracy and academic freedom, an anti-establishment arts and culture scene in Havana, a community of bloggers and Twitter developing despite near-complete denial of Internet access (Committee to Protect Journalists- Cuban Bloggers), trade unions and farmers' cooperatives, independent journalists and libraries, underground newsletters, and human rights defenders are articulating the Cuban people's desire for a nonviolent transition to a free and democratic society under the rule of law (Journal of Democracy- Can Cuba Change? Ferment in Civil Society).
Political Prisoners in 2010: Zapata Lives!
Cuba's political prisoners have made international news throughout most of this year since the death of bricklayer, democracy activist, and Amnesty International prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata Tamayo on February 23, 2010. He had been on hunger strike for over 80 days, demanding respect for his basic rights. Since he began his unjust imprisonment in the Black Spring crackdown of March 2003, he had been subjected to brutal beatings, long stretches in tiny, windowless punishment cells, and other forms of abuse (Times- Death of dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo leads to clampdown in Cuba).
He was denied adequate medical treatment throughout his hunger strike, and was refused water for 18 days by his jailers. Cuba's human rights and pro-democracy community consider the Castro regime responsible for his murder.
“They finally finished him. My son’s death has been a premeditated murder,” said Reina Tamayo Danger, his mother (Cuban Democratic Directorate- Directorio Condemns Murder of Orlando Zapata Tamayo by Castro Regime, Huffington Post- Zapata Lives! The Truth about the Life and Murder of Orlando Zapata Tamayo).
Internal Resistance, International Solidarity
Orlando Zapata's death placed the ongoing plight of Cuban political prisoners in the international spotlight, alongside the regime's human rights record (AFP- Dissident prisoner's death spurs international outcry, EU Parliament- Cuba: MEPs condemn "avoidable" death of Orlando Zapata). In Cuba, activists spread the news of Zapata's death, vowing to continue his struggle for freedom and democracy. Demonstrations in multiple provinces, most prominent among them marches in Havana by the Ladies in White, relatives of political prisoners locked up during the 2003 crackdown, called for the release of all Cuban political prisoners, drawing greater press coverage than ever before. The Castro regime responded with brutal repression for several weeks, which provoked further outcry (United Press International- Cuban arrests of women relatives shows hardening on rights issue).
Strong and consistent nonviolent activism on the Island, coupled with international pressure and solidarity with the Cuban resistance, forced the regime to embark on a face-saving strategy of forcing political prisoners into exile in Spain and elsewhere, while claiming that it was generously liberating them, without ever committing to systematic reforms on human rights or democracy (Washington Post- Cuba's Marginal Gesture).
The Struggle Continues
The released prisoners themselves emphasize that the struggle for freedom continues, and that the Cuban regime is an obstacle to the democratic change the Cuban people need (BBC- Cuba's freed dissidents vow to fight on ). Normando Hernandez Gonzalez, an independent journalist who developed chronic ailments due to mistreatment and medical negligence during his political imprisonment stated flatly that recent moves involving political prisoners did not change the fact that “Cuba is not opening up to democracy” (BBC- Cuba not opening up to democracy). They called upon the European Union to maintain its Common Position toward Cuba in place, which seeks improvements in human rights and democracy on the Island (BBC- Freed dissidents urge EU not to soften its Cuba policy).
The total number of political prisoners held in Cuba cannot be known for certain, but well over a hundred internationally recognized political prisoners remain behind bars, and none of the political prisoners released so far have been legally rehabilitated or had his charges revoked, meaning they remain guilty of crimes in the eyes of the Communist state wherever they may be. Thousands of Cuban citizens continue to be held on charges such as “Pre-Criminal Social Dangerousness,” or under the many provisions criminalizing free expression and association, such as Law 88 (Human Rights Watch- Imprisoned for 'Dangerousness' in Cuba, Amnesty International- Cuba:'Climate of fear' created by restrictions on free expression).
The Cuban resistance will continue to persevere in its struggle for freedom, even though the risk of political imprisonment will persist as long as these unjust laws, the repressive machinery that enforces them, and the political actors who maintain totalitarian rule in Cuba remain.