New York Sun Editorial
August 22, 2005
Freedom is on the march in Cuba, and Fidel Castro seems nervous. Over the past month, he has intensified his crackdown on political dissenters, making arrests at a pace unseen since the last wave of repression in 2003. Now Rene Gomez Manzano, a dissident leader arrested in his bed on July 22, is starting a hunger strike to protest his unjust imprisonment, as The New York Sun’s Meghan Clyne reported Friday. Mr. Gomez Manzano will join Akbar Ganji, the jailed Iranian journalist who also has gone on a hunger strike, as a hero of the struggle for democracy.
The most recent repression traces back to a May 20 gathering at Havana at which at least 150 dissidents demanded democracy and the release of political prisoners. Mr. Gomez Manzano was one of the organizers. After this unusually strong showing, Mr. Castro apparently felt compelled to send in his paramilitary to suppress a small annual opposition commemoration on July 13. A wave of arrests followed just more than a week later.
Since July 22, 50 opponents of the regime have been arrested, of whom 15 remain in jail, including Mr. Gomez Manzano. Seventy-five dissidents were arrested in 2003; 61 of them are still behind bars. The government has launched a campaign of intimidation against other leaders. For example, a crowd of pro-government thugs recently surrounded the house of Vladimiro Roca for several hours, hurling invective at him as they tried to block an anti-government meeting.
Mr. Castro has managed to weather many storms during his 46-year reign, but there’s hope that this time might be different. “I think we are at the tipping point,” a senior program manager at Freedom House, Xavier Utset, told the Sun. The dissident movement is gaining ground, Mr. Utset said. The movement is developing into a full-blown civil society that is less afraid of the government, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, Stephen Johnson, said.
The regime also is fraying at the edges in more serious ways than ever before, a former staff member of the National Security Council, Otto Reich, told the Sun. A 15-year downward economic spiral triggered by the end of Soviet support is sinking the country further into poverty and stagnation, and aid from Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela isn’t nearly enough to solve the problem. Hurricane Dennis wreaked havoc on a Cuban infrastructure that was already crumbling.
A recent visit by Senator Specter turned up the heat even further. The senator met with dissident leaders just three weeks after Mr. Castro had claimed in a speech that the opposition was dead. As Ms. Clyne reported, dissidents say the visit gave a major moral and political boost to their movement by showing the support of a high-profile American senator for freedom in Cuba. President Bush last year created the new post of “transition coordinator” to oversee American support for the downfall of the current government and to aid a democratic replacement when that downfall happens, a post the president filled late last month by appointing Caleb McCarry in a move that angered Mr. Castro.
Enter Mr. Gomez Manzano, whose only crime is wanting basic freedoms for the Cuban people, for which he stands charged under the “Law for the Protection of the National Independence and Economy of Cuba” and faces up to 13 years in prison. For the sin of wanting freedom, he sits in jail, and for that cause he is willing to starve himself in protest. So it is vital that people outside Cuba stand with Mr. Gomez Manzano and the other dissidents back on the island.
That is starting to happen already, at least in America. Thursday, a White House spokeswoman, Maria Tamburri, denounced the recent wave of repression as “another example of the oppressive nature of the Castro regime,” and reiterated the administration’s commitment to a free Cuba. A State Department official went further, saying, “Rene Gomez Manzano is unjustly incarcerated, and he, and all political prisoners in Cuba, should be released right now.”
As of Sunday evening, the American government had not confirmed that a hunger strike was afoot, but presumably it will do so soon. Mr. Bush eventually spoke out in support of Mr. Ganji’s cause, but only after the Iranian had been on hunger strike for weeks. It may be that the response from Mr. Bush - and from the rest of the world - will come sooner this time.