Cuban dissident picks up human rights prize in Europe — three years late

Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas, finally picking up a European human rights prize that Havana kept him from receiving in 2010, said Wednesday that Cuba will be democratic some day because its people are demanding “the freedoms that you enjoy.”

Clearly emotional as he received the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Conscience in the French city of Strasbourg, Fariñas raised a clenched fist and said, “This fist symbolizes the strength of the hope that democracy will some day reach Cuba.”

The 51-year-old psychologist was awarded the 50,000 euro prize — about $67,000 — in 2010 but authorities did not allow him to leave the island to pick it up. European Parliament officials left an empty chair at that year’s award ceremony.

“Three years ago, I could not be here, and in my place there was an empty chair. Today I say that Cuba will be free, thanks not to its rulers but to the will of its citizens,” Fariñas said, drawing applause from Euro-deputies, staffers and supporters at the ceremony.

Dissidents are the true forces of change “because we represent the power of a people who do not submit to living without the freedoms that you enjoy,” added Farinas, a former member of the elite special forces who fought in Angola but later turned against the communist system.

Fariñas has become one of Cuba’s top dissidents through his constant activism in the opposition movement and his estimated 23 hunger strikes to demand that the government respect human rights and free political prisoners.

He was the island’s third winner of the Sakharov Prize, after the late Oswaldo Payá in 2002 and the Ladies in White, female relatives of political prisoners, in 2005. Havana also barred the women from picking up their prize that year, and they received it only this April at the European Union headquarters in Belgium.

Cuba has allowed about 20 dissidents to travel abroad this year under a reform of its migration system that eased restrictions on leaving and reentering the island. But it has blocked travel by others, most of them freed early from prison because of health issues and now on parole.

The Cuban government brands dissidents as “mercenaries” paid by the U.S. government to undermine its rule. The Sakharov Prize, named after the late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, has gone in the past to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma.

Farinas told the Spanish EFE news agency after the ceremony that a democratic Cuba “is closer than we think” He added: “The level of social protest is higher each day … and when there’s more the government will have its hands tied because there will be so much critical mass that it will be impossible to repress it.”

The dissident from the central Cuba city of Santa Clara said he had dedicated the prize to his mother, who accompanied him to Strasbourg.

“When I started the hunger strikes my mother, with tears in her eyes, asked me to make a last will,” he said. “I told her that she should not have taught me so much about Cuba’s founding fathers. If I am here today, it is because of this woman.”

This report was augmented with El Nuevo Herald wire services

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