The international community must act against the undemocratic Cuban regime as it increases its repression of dissidents, argues a member of the European Parliament's human rights subcommittee
Who is responsible for the death of the Cuban political prisoner Wilman Villar Mendoza on January 19? Why, on February 3, was blogger Yoani Sanchez refused permission to travel abroad by Cuban authorities for the 19th time since May 2008? Why were opposition group Damas de Blanco – Sakharov prize laureates – not allowed to travel to the European Parliament in Strasbourg to collect that prestigious award for the freedom of thought?
There are so many questions and almost no answers from the Cuban regime. The situation of harassment and repression endangers the lives of Cuban people who defend human rights and civil liberties. We are aware that the regime is directly responsible for the death of four political prisoners – Orlando Zapata Tamayo, Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia, Laura Pollan Toledo and Wilman Villar Mendoza – as well as thousands of arbitrary arrests and hundreds of beatings, assaults, and acts of repudiation.
The death of 31-year-old dissident Wilman Villar Mendoza on January 19 after a 50 day hunger strike highlights the continuing repression in Cuba. Villar Mendoza was detained in November 2011 after participating in a peaceful demonstration in Contramaestre calling for greater political freedom and respect for human rights. He was charged with 'contempt' and sentenced to four years in prison in a hearing that lasted less than an hour. He was not given the opportunity to speak in his defence, nor represented by a defence lawyer.
The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a human rights monitoring group that the government does not recognise, classified Villar Mendoza as a political prisoner in December 2011. The Cuban regime denies holding political prisoners and said in a statement that Mr Villar "was not a dissident nor was he on a hunger strike". The authorities did not even bother to tell Wilman Villar's wife about the death of her husband, and she was informed by some human rights defenders.
Almost two years ago, political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died in similar circumstances, also on hunger strike, with the same demands. Activist Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia died last year after receiving a brutal beating from the political police at Leoncio Vidal Park, in the city of Santa Clara, Villa Clara province. Less than three months ago, Laura Pollan Toledo, leader of the Damas de Blanco, died under mysterious circumstances that have still not been clarified. Numerous reports issued from within the island over the past three months have reported an increase in the regime's violence against opposition – including cases of activists who have suffered fractured skulls after machete blows, and members of the Damas de Blanco who have been pricked with needles containing unknown substances while participating in marches on the streets of Havana.
The regime in Havana and its prisons have a system devised to eliminate those political and common detainees who protest against the injustice and inhumanity of their captors by denying them water and medical care, and confining them in freezing cells. Catherine Ashton, the European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, deplored the tragic death of Mr Villar and urged Cuba to continue working to make progress on respect of human rights and freedom of expression. "It's the second death in similar conditions in a very short time and it poses doubts concerning Cuban's judicial system and penitentiary," Ashton said.
According to human rights organisations, there is no way to know how many government opponents remain in jail, as independent investigators cannot visit prisons. In 2010, Raul Castro freed 52 prisoners who had been arrested during a 2003 crackdown, but human rights defenders from the island say that those releases have not changed the attitude by the regime towards dissidents and repression continues. Last year the regime decided to release 2,900 inmates, but following human rights defenders information, the dissidents were not released.
Political prisoners must be released immediately. The persecution of people for their legitimate demands for freedom of speech, thought and assembly is unjust. The lack of fundamental rights contradicts the principles of humanity and is a clear infringement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Cuba is a signatory.
One could get an impression that Cuban regime is making free-market reforms which aim at reviving Cuba's socialist economy by boosting private enterprise. But the reality is much darker. So-called free-market reforms will not change much in relations between the state and citizens: the regime will still control 99 per cent of the economy. Moreover, those reforms will not provide Cuban citizens with their fundamental rights, such as freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. It is not a surprise that most Cubans desire economic opportunities and private property ownership, but at the same time they closely tie these economic changes to political changes in the form of free elections, free expression, access to information and the right to dissent.
It is clear that the reality in Cuba is far from the state propaganda of 'reforms' and 'changes'. The regime deserves strong condemnation for these crimes and persecutions of people. The international community should take the necessary steps to prevent the further escalation of the extrajudicial executions by the Castro regime. Any repressive and undemocratic regime is similar to a dead man walking. The Arab spring surprised the world in 2011 throwing away one dictator after another. Spring is unavoidable and inescapable, in Cuba also.
Dr Laima Andrikiene is an MEP in the European People's Party and a member of the European Parliament's subcommittee on human rights