Martha Frayde, co-founder of Cuba’s human rights movement, dies

Martha Frayde Barraqué, a founder and leading figure of Cuba’s human rights movement and a sharp critic of the Fidel and Raúl Castro governments for decades, died Wednesday in Madrid, Spain. She was 93 years old.

Frayde started out like many Cubans as an enthusiastic supporter of Fidel Castro even before his revolution toppled the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship in 1959 and promised democracy.

But she turned against him as Castro imposed a communist system on the island, denied human and civil rights to its citizens and jailed tens of thousands who opposed his rule peacefully.

“I wanted to do something big for my country,” she told El Nuevo Herald in a 2008 interview. “Castro fooled us all, starting with me. The visionaries [who foresaw Castro’s dictatorship] from the start were a minority.”

As a dictator, she added, Castro made Batista “look small.”

Born in Havana, Frayde graduated from the University of Havana’s School of Medicine in 1946 and went on to postgraduate studies at McGill and Montreal Universities in Canada. On her return to Cuba, she was active in the Orthodox Party.

Castro named her to head the National Hospital and the School of Nursing in Havana and later as Cuba’s ambassador to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a post she resigned in 1965.

She began openly criticizing Castro and in 1976 founded the first peaceful opposition group on the island, the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, with Ricardo Bofill. Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz and brothers Gustavo and Sebastian Arcos Bergnes joined shortly afterward, becoming the elder statesmen of the dissident movement.

Sanchez Santa Cruz remains in Cuba, heading the Cuban Committee for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. Bofill lives in Miami and the Arcos Bergnes brothers passed away, one in 1997 and the other in 2006.

Frayde was arrested in 1975, accused of “counterrevolutionary” activities and sentenced to 29 years in prison. Under international pressures, Castro freed her in 1979 after she agreed to leave the country. She went into exile in Spain.

In 2006, she donated her documents to the Cuban Heritage Collection and her collection of Cuban paintings to the Lowe Art Museum, both at the University of Miami. Among her many artist friends were Cuban masters René Portocarrero, Wifredo Lam, Carlos Enriques, Víctor Manuel, Amelia Peláez and Mariano Rodríguez.

Exiled in Spain, she remained the European representative for the Cuban Committee for Human rights and distributed its denunciations of abuses and the horrible conditions in Cuban prisons.

She was reported to have said that she wanted to live just five minutes longer than Fidel Castro, but in her interview with El Nuevo she cautioned against any attempts to settle scores in a post-Castro era.

“We will have to move with much patience, tolerance and intelligence,” she declared, “placing the desire to help the nation advance above all else.”

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