One of Cuba’s most tenacious dissidents, Martha Beatriz Roque, announced Monday that she and 12 other opposition activists had launched hunger strikes to highlight the growing number of government abuses, which appear to have become “almost normal.”
“This is a tremendously difficult time for dissidents because the fact that they (government security agents) detain one person or beat another has become routine,” the 67-year-old Roque said. “Now the world sees that as something almost normal.”
Another dozen dissidents around the country will also fast, Roque told El Nuevo Herald by phone from Havana. Seven men are in prison and five are free, among them Jorge Luis García Perez, known as Antunez, who has been briefly arrested dozens of times in recent months.
Although such short-term arrests usually draw little news media attention, they put strong pressure on dissidents to halt their opposition activities. And their numbers have been rising steeply since ruler Raúl Castro officially succeeded older brother Fidel Castro in 2008.
The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation in Havana (CCHRNR) last week reported 521 such brief arrests in August, compared to 243 in the same month last year and only 184 in August of 2010.
Roque, an economist who has served a total of five years in prison, was the only woman jailed during the 2003 crackdown on 75 peaceful dissidents known as Cuba’s Black Spring. She was sentenced to 20 years but was freed in 2005 because of her delicate health.
She said Monday that she suffers from diabetes and that her water-only fast could easily kill her in just 48 hours. Roque added that she will refuse all medicines and medical attention, and had already written a last will and testament.
Asked what would make her and the other dissidents give up their hunger strikes, she spoke in general about government human rights abuses like the short-term detentions and other controls on activists’ movements, and mentioned two specific demands.
One demand was for the release of Jorge Vasquez Chaviano, a dissident jailed for six months for a common crime. Roque said he was due to be freed Sunday from a prison in central Villa Clara province, but was not freed and is one of the seven inmates on the hunger strike.
Another demand was for the government to fix the home of Misael Valdés in the eastern town of Palma Soriano. Valdés and his wife were arrested briefly last week and when they returned home they found that government supporters had ripped off the wooden sides of their home and smashed their TV, fan, bed and dinner plates, according to Roque.
Cuban dissidents have launched scores of hunger strikes over the years to highlight their demands. Most are called off after a few days but two opposition activists died in prison during lengthy hunger strikes: Orlando Zapata Tamayo in 2010 and Wilman Villar early this year.
Roque, who has been active in virtually every single opposition initiative since about 1990, said she and the other hunger strikers want to shine a spotlight on the growing number of short-term arrests and other low-level methods of repression under Raúl Castro.
Dissidents are regularly detained on the streets on their way to opposition activities, or are put under house arrest for the duration of such activities, she noted. More than 600 such detentions were reported during Pope Benedict XVI’s March visit to Cuba alone.
The short-term detentions of dissidents averaged 147 per month in 2010, and then more than doubled to 343 per month for all of 2011, according to the CCHRNR. Nearly 800 were reported in last December, 631 in January, and a total of 1,158 in March.
“They fire you from your jobs, they block your cellular phones, they don’t let you aboard buses,” Roque said. “Heck with Antunez, they arrest him almost every single time he sticks his nose outside his home.”
“What we want,” she added, “is for the government to understand that dissidents are people.”