By Edward McMillan-Scott
The autumn streets of Havana are dark at night. The few electric lights are reserved for the main highways. Side streets are lit only by the occasional patched-up pre-revolution Buick or Chevrolet, sometimes an open door throws neon light onto the pavement outside.
Cubans shuffle head down: many are starving, many ill, most literally dirt poor. They talk of a state of miedo – fear.
The only colour on the crumbling colonial buildings comes from political slogans extolling the 1957 revolution led by Los Hermanos Castro (‘The Castro Brothers’). One is the dictator Fidel, dying from stomach cancer, the other his alcoholic brother Raul.
It was difficult finding the little house where the Damas de Blanco - Women in White - were waiting for me. They had been protesting outside their church that day about their husbands’ and sons’ imprisonment in 2003 for crimes against the state. A token 75 political activists had been rounded up.
The Women were eager to talk, eager to know my opinion about what happens next in Cuba. I had come to find out, and to hear more of the conditions their menfolk were being kept in.
My visit to Cuba on a tourist visa was organised by Vaclav Havel’s committee for democracy. I had come to examine how the £100 million EU democracy fund I set up aimed at the transformation of the ex-Soviet bloc could help Cuba.
The Women told me of the unlit, fetid cells, the filthy food, the lack of medical care at prisons hundreds of miles from their families – and far from the remaining political activists in Havana.
The European Parliament awarded the Women the Sakharov Prize for freedom of expression in 2005: they could not collect it but their demonstrations are tolerated by the regime.
The same prize was awarded to Cuban dissident Osvaldo Paya in 2002, just before the crackdown. His limited political activities too are tolerated, but he and his family are harassed. His 18-year-old daughter has just started university but she cannot make friends, as the other students are instructed to shun her.
Paya leads a Christian liberal movements from his modest house in the messy street where slogans extolling the revolution taunt him on the way to his work as a hospital technician.
His eldest son is repairing an ancient washing machine; his wife preparing a meal from the sparse ingredients lying on the kitchen table. There is no evidence of any food storage.
Paya organised a mass petition in 2002, an extraordinarily difficult undertaking. He collected more than 11,000 signatures for the reform agenda known as the Varela Project calling for economic and political freedom which achieved international support.
Under Cuba’s constitution, a petition of more than 10,000 must be addressed by its stooge parliament. The response? A counter-initiative by the regime calling for permanent socialism for which it claimed 99 per cent ‘voter’ support.
Today, Paya is presenting his latest project. Para Todos Cubanos is a plan for the transition of Cuba from 50 years of dictatorship to real democracy. He shows me the myriad supporters’ signatures but these days he cannot make mass appeals.
Martha Caballo, a more nationalistic and populist figure, has also produced a blueprint through her Civil Society Assembly.‘Bring on the day after’ is a draft constitution for a Castro-free Cuba.
Conversation with Martha was difficult, because the regime blasts her alleyway with pop music day and night. In a corner, an aide was faxing press releases aimed at a Latin American diplomatic conference in Montevideo the following day.
The courage and determination of people like Paya and Caballo is humbling to those who, like myself, tend to take Europe’s freedom and prosperity for granted.
But Europe’s history has a message for the world’s remaining tyrannies – for China, Cuba, Egypt – even Russia, where democracy has now faltered.
My visits in the last year to each of these countries, to meet political dissidents, religious activists and civil society actors have shown me how Europe’s example holds more hope than America’s dollars, let alone her divisions.
This month the European Parliament will award the 2006 Sakharov Prize to Alexander Milinkievic, leader of the opposition to Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
Such tyrannies are all following the same path, banning use of the internet, imprisoning or killing dissidents, trying to control religious activity and stifling civil society. Their days are numbered, but I want the EU to do more to bring on the day after.
Edward McMillan-Scott is an MEP for Yorkshire & Humber (Conservative), European Parliament vice president and founder of the EU Democracy and Human Rights Initiative