By Doreen Hemlock
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Wed, Feb. 14, 2007
SANTA CLARA, Cuba - After a seven-month hunger strike in a bid to seek Internet access for Cubans, the independent journalist still has no direct access to the World Wide Web.
Maybe worse, few Cubans know Guillermo Farinas’ name. Even fewer know about his protest, or that this time, he nearly died.
Still, the 44-year-old dissident is undeterred. This strike, one of 20 he’s held in the past decade, gained international attention.
“The Cuban government controls the media inside the country, but it can’t control the media outside,” said Farinas, from his mother’s home in this provincial capital, nearly 200 miles from Havana. He is in Santa Clara recuperating, confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk because of the muscle he lost during the fast.
A psychologist by training, Farinas has repeatedly stopped eating and drinking to express his dissent with Cuba’s communist government and to appeal for democracy. The peaceful protests spark solidarity within the country and worldwide, he said.
Farinas said he launched his most recent strike on Jan. 31, 2006, after the government denied Cubans access to the one Internet cafe in Santa Clara. Fellow independent journalists had filed an e-mail report from the cafe, claiming authorities depleted the local blood bank to ship blood to Pakistan with Cuban medical teams. Without the cafe, Farinas and his colleagues can only phone and fax reports abroad, delaying publication.
A recent United Nations report found Cuba had the lowest Internet usage rate in the Americas and among the lowest worldwide: fewer than two of every 100 residents. The Cuban government limits most Cubans only to e-mail accounts or access to a controlled Cuban intranet, denying the World Wide Web to most.
Farinas said he did not set out to clash with Cuba’s government. As a teenager, he was a member of the communist youth group, then attended a military academy. He served as a military cadet in Angola and the former Soviet Union, he said.
Along the way, he became disillusioned.
As a cadet guarding leaders’ homes around 1980, Farinas said he saw they had what most Cubans lacked: nice cars and better food. He learned the island’s top brass sometimes attended cockfights, which were supposed to be illegal.
“I saw there was a difference between what they said and what they do,” he said sadly.
After military service, Farinas returned to Cuba to study psychology. But his thesis on the re-education of minors was never circulated, he said, because it criticized the system for keeping violent and non-violent youth in the same jails.
Problems escalated after graduation when he went to work for a Havana hospital. As hospital union leader, he denounced managers for allowing donations of sheets and other basics to disappear. Farinas said he was jailed and later fired. After the hospital administration was changed, he appealed to get his job back - to no avail.
Frustrated, on March 6, 1997, Farinas said he donned a placard in front of the hospital that read, “Down with Corruption, I’m on Hunger Strike.” Within days, he was hospitalized and fed intravenously.
After four months, Farinas said he was rehired, scoring a victory.
It was short-lived. He quickly was pushed to retire on disability.
Yet he learned the power of hunger strikes to prod change.
Since then, Farinas has stopped eating to push a variety of causes during the past 10 years, from prison conditions to a phone for his mother’s home. His longest hunger strike lasted 18 months, surviving in a state hospital on intravenous feedings.
The impact of the strikes is hard to measure. A whispered expression of solidarity from a hospital caregiver. Word that sympathizers abroad have stopped eating too. Only recently, he received the two strongest signs of international recognition: a human rights honor in Germany and a “cyber-dissident” award by Reporters Without Borders, based in Paris.
“The only way I find to fight is the hunger strike because it earns admiration both from those like me who resist and others who repress,” said Farinas. “And it moves international public opinion because it’s an extreme way to press for rights.”
Many Cuban dissidents agree with Farinas that violence is easily quashed in their homeland, and they seek change peacefully. They admire Farinas’ courage but fear for his health.
“He’s almost a heroic figure,” said human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez in Havana.
During the seven-month hunger strike that ended Aug. 31, Farinas said he lost 66 pounds. One of his lungs filled with blood, he said, and doctors had to break three ribs and operate to drain it. He was in a coma for five days.
Now, he is recuperating, but remains thin and weak. With continued physical therapy, he hopes to walk this month.
He has resumed work as an independent journalist, while also directing a social studies group and an independent library from his mother’s home.
Farinas said he worries that a permanent government under Raul Castro, now the acting leader, may loosen restrictions on businesses but bring greater political repression.
Even so, he vows not to give in, just as blacks in the United States including Martin Luther King did not waver in their struggle for civil rights.
“I want pluralism in Cuba,” Farinas said, “not only Internet access.”