Friday, October 12, 2007
World’s indifference may cost life
Cuban independent journalist Normando Hernandez Gonzalez, imprisoned since March 2003 for being too good at his job, this week marked a bittersweet moment for his family - and reminded the world of why he and so many other Cuban journalists, librarians, human rights activists and other dissidents are locked away in Fidel Castro’s gulag.
That reminder, if properly acted on by the international community, may be enough to save the seriously ill Hernandez’s life.
“Sept. 3 was one of the happiest - and saddest - days of my life,” Hernandez wrote (translated here) in a dispatch published at Miscelaneas de Cuba, a Spanish-language Web site based in Sweden. “Happy because my daughter started school, sad because I couldn’t be at her side to support her and to see her enter a classroom. Also, because what she will receive is not an education, but 100 percent indoctrination.”
Their commitment to break Castro’s indoctrination of a nation is what led to the arrest and imprisonment of about 80 Cuban dissidents in March 2003. Hernandez, who not only worked as a journalist, but also trained others for the profession, was convicted of causing “damage to the independence of the Cuban state,” of being an American “mercenary” and for accepting payment from overseas for his work. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
For Cuban prisoners of conscience like Hernandez, who turns 39 on Oct. 21, that’s about the same as a death sentence - but much more cruel.
If you are a political prisoner in Cuba, the food is awful, sometimes rotten. There is limited access to sunlight, and to family on the outside. The guards are brutal. Many political prisoners, including Hernandez, suffer from health problems brought on and aggravated by their confinement, and by hunger strikes to protest the poor conditions. The medical care, a so-called “wonder” of the revolution, is spotty at best.
Cuban political prisoners do not get enough of the world’s attention. In fact, too often, the world has ignored what is happening in the gulag, and instead rewarded the Castro dictatorship.
Since the “black spring” of 2003, the United Nations elected Cuba to a seat on its Human Rights Council, perfect for distorting the reality of life on the island. Spain, looking to guard its business interests in Cuba, replaced sanctions imposed by the European Union with a policy of appeasement. And last month, there was barely a mention in the international press, which was busy covering the crackdown in Myanmar, about the temporary detention of several dozen dissidents on their way to Havana for a rally on behalf of political prisoners.
But that indifference about Cuban political prisoners may be breaking, at least for Hernandez. This past spring, the PEN American Center, a literary group that defends the freedom of expression around the world, awarded Hernandez one of its top prizes. And Costa Rica announced it would grant Hernandez a humanitarian visa to receive medical treatment - if the Cuban government first would grant him an exit visa, which it so far has refused.
The Cuban regime may be feeling the pressure. On Sept. 19, Hernandez, suffering from tuberculosis and the effects of his latest hunger strike, was transferred to a military hospital in Havana - from where he reported about his daughter’s schooling. There is the possibility, albeit remote, that the transfer was a precursor to an eventual parole. A handful of other dissidents jailed in 2003 have received similar consideration.
What is needed now to save Hernandez’s life is more pressure and scrutiny from the international community. American sanctions must not be relaxed until, among other things, political prisoners are released. The United Nations must not kowtow to Castro. And if Spain and other nations want a rapprochement with Havana, they must demand in return more than the party line that there are no political prisoners in Cuba.
And in Hernandez’s case, Western journalists could do worse than to advocate for their imprisoned colleague’s release.
The campaign for change in Cuba is handicapped, at least internationally, by the absence of a defining figure - such as Nelson Mandela in South Africa, behind whom and on whose behalf that campaign can unite. Maybe Hernandez can be that person. But the world must act now to join in his cause, to demand his release, before he becomes another martyr for freedom in Cuba.
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