Cuban dissident group says 40 on hunger strike to demand the release of opposition activists

Forty Cuban dissidents remained on a hunger strike Monday to push for the freedom of about 30 jailed members of the most aggressive opposition group on the eastern end of the island, according to their leader.

“Our group is determined to stop these arbitrary arrests,” said Jose Daniel Ferrer, 41, who founded the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) after he emerged from eight years in prison in 2011.

UNPACU quickly became the most active and aggressive dissident movement in eastern Cuba, organizing street marches and protests and filming videos of garbage pickers in the region as well as damage caused by Hurricane Sandy last October that is yet to be repaired.

Ferrer said he and nine other UNPACU members are on a hunger strike in his home in the town of Palmarito de Cauto as well as nine more in the nearby city of Santiago de Cuba, five in the town of Palma Soriano and five more in the city of Holguín. An additional nine are striking in prisons and two more are in Havana and Pinar del Rio.

They have been taking only water since last Tuesday, he added. Nine others who started on the hunger strike dropped out because they had become too weak.

The hunger strike is designed to call attention to the plight of the 30 jailed UNPACU members. Some are being held in police stations and may be freed, but most have been sent to jails, presumably to await trials.

Ferrer and most of the hunger strikers began their protest in Santiago’s main plaza, Cespedes Park. But they retreated to the adjoining grounds of the city’s Catholic Cathedral amid threats from pro-government mobs and police.

Dissident videos showed police detaining several dissidents and shoving them into patrol cars on a street corner between the park and the church.

A priest asked them to come inside when it started to rain, Ferrer said. Santiago Archbishop Dionisio García Ibañez urged them to leave later Tuesday in exchange for his promise that he would talk to authorities about the jailed UNPACU members.

Police and the mobs of government supporters agreed to move back one city block, he added, and García provided two trucks that took the protesters back to their respective homes.

“Although we don’t share his vision, out of respect for the church and for Dionisio we agreed to put an end to that protest and stop the violence,” Ferrer told El Nuevo Herald in a phone conversation.

Eleven dissidents were arrested last Tuesday as they tried to join the hunger strikers at the church, he noted. Seven were freed later, but four were sent to jail, joining the 33 others who have been in prison for more than a week.

Dozens of hunger strikes have been launched and then called off by dissidents in Cuba in recent years. But two strikers have died since 2010. Orlando Zapata Tamayo died Feb. 23, 2010, after an 85-day hunger strike, and Wilman Villar died in January 2012 after a 50-day strike.

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